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Murder Most Fowl started as a cure for the Post-NaNo blues, and dragged on much longer than I wanted it to. But it's a 'finished' story, in that it has a begining, a middle, and an end. Still pretty much completely unedited.

Huge, gaping plot holes.

But fluffy and entertaining, I'm told.


Captain Morgan trudged wearily up the marble steps to the ornate double doors of 5497 Cambridge Circle. He knew why he had gotten this assignment; hell, the whole department knew. The powers that be didn’t really want the case solved, but they had to put on a good show. And his being hand-picked for this assignment showed exactly what they thought of his skill as an investigator.

He sighed as a uniformed Sergeant met him at the door and escorted him back to the small, private office where the body had been discovered. Along the way he noticed the opulent decor, and couldn’t help but think that maybe justice had, in a way, been served. After all, all of this finery had been bought with blood money, even if it couldn’t be proven.

The Sergeant stopped abruptly next to a large gilt-framed painting. Morgan stared at the greater-than-life-sized oil painting of James St. Irving, which went from two inches below the high ceiling to two inches above the floor. Looking up and down the hallway, he noted several other similar paintings of other people, most likely ancestors. This family had had money, and power, for quite some time.

"Why are we stopping here…" Morgan paused and looked at the Sergeant’s name plate, "Sergeant Burton?"

"Sir," he said crisply, and gave the edge of the painting a quick tug. It opened to reveal a doorway into a very masculinely furnished study, teaming with crime scene technicians, photographers, and police.

"Of course. The secret room," Morgan mumbled as he stepped over the low threshold and strode into the room. The buzz of activity slowly subsided, as one by one the people in the room turned to look at him.

"Well, now, what do we have here?" he asked, once all eyes had swiveled his way.

Another uniformed officer sidled up to him, looking slightly green about the gills. Morgan suppressed a groan and fervently hoped the young lad wasn’t going to lose his lunch all over the crime scene. Or at least hoped he would have the decency to do it in a corner, where they wouldn’t have to step over it the whole time.

"Sir," the officer began, and then swallowed hard, "the body is over there." He gestured vaguely in the direction of the desk.

"Why don’t you go start writing up your report," Morgan said, taking pity on the young man, "I’ve got things under control here."

"Yes, sir!" the young officer said as he bolted from the room.

For a moment, Morgan simply stood there, surveying the room. It was a fairly large room with no windows, decorated in a deep burgundy with chocolate brown accents. The dark hardwood floor was topped with a burgundy and navy Persian rug, and a massive silver pendant light fixture in the center of the room cast a subdued glow about the room.

To his right was a large brown leather couch sitting in front of a massive wall of bookcases. The bookcases were crammed with leather-bound volumes, ledgers, and heavy knickknacks. In front of him was a massive brick fireplace, surrounded by an ornate mantel and crowned with a lovely oil painting of a garden in the springtime. Morgan frowned slightly at the picture, thinking its cheery colors looked so out of place. As he studied it, he realized that not only the colors looked out of place, but the picture itself looked… odd. He stepped closer to it, and realized that the children he assumed were romping in the meadow were actually terrified and running for their lives. What they were running from was not visible in the picture, but the expressions of terror on their faces made a small shudder run down his spine. The artist had been very talented, if a bit twisted.

He shook his head and turned to his left. This half of the room was dominated by a large cherry desk, and a bloody body laying on the rug in front of it. Morgan spared only a glance at the body before he turned his attention back to the room. The wall behind the desk was also covered in bookcases, these crammed just as tightly with books and knickknacks as the one at the other end. Frowning, Morgan turned back to look at the other end of the room. He looked back and forth a few times before deciding that he was right – the two walls were mirror images of each other. All of the items were carefully arranged so that the two walls, at least at a quick glance, were exactly the same.

"Jansen!" he barked, staring at the photographer. "I want you to take good pictures of these two walls – the bookcases. Every shelf – you got that?"

The photographer nodded, and went to work snapping pictures.

"Miles! Crenshaw!" he barked again, and this time two technicians snapped to attention. "After he’s done, I want the two of you to work those bookcases. One on each side of the room, calling off what’s on each shelf. Then I want you to compare all of the books that look identical, just to see if they’re any discrepancies."

"Sir," Miles said timidly, "that’ll take…"

"Certainly, sir!" Crenshaw overrode Miles, shooting him a 'don’t even think it' look.

Morgan smiled slightly, happy at his ability to still intimidate, and finally turned to look at the body.

James St. Irving had never been a particularly large man, and in death he managed to look even smaller than he had in life. His body lay in a crumpled heap in front of his desk, blood oozing from the multiple stab wounds. The medical examiner hadn’t moved the body yet, having been waiting patiently for the photographer to snap a picture from every conceivable angle. She looked up at Morgan as he stood staring at the body.

"Fill me in," he said brusquely.

"Time of death, somewhere around two, based on condition of the body, last known contact, and time the body was found. He made a phone call to the security company right before two, telling them that the system had crashed." Morgan nodded, already having heard this over the phone.

"Security company shows up at four, and the front door was wide open. They wander into the house, see the passageway to the ‘secret’ room hanging open, poke a head in and find the body," he finished. She nodded.

"So theoretically we have a two hour time frame, but all the physical evidence – body temp, the already drying blood, and the rigidity – point to him having been killed earlier, rather than later, in that window."

"So it probably wasn’t coincidence that the security system just 'happened' to crash," he said, more to himself than to her.

"Is it okay to move him now?" she asked in a soft voice.

"Gimme a few minutes, would you?" he said, and she nodded and moved back, making a few notes on her clipboard.

Morgan slowly circled the body, which was more or less face down on the carpet. The legs were tucked up under the torso, and the arms splayed out to the sides. The multiple stab wounds on his back were almost indistinguishable from one another; the blood that had poured out of them had turned the entire back of his once-crisp white shirt a muddy red color. Morgan squatted down and looked at the hands, which were also covered in blood. He noted that there were faint smears of blood on the edge of the desk.

"Okay, time to turn him over," he said to the medical examiner, and they worked together to flip the body onto its back. His eyebrows shot up when he saw another multitude of stab wounds on the victim’s chest. The medical examiner raised her eyes to his.

"Somebody sure had it in for this guy," she said calmly. "There are at least 17 separate wounds, and any three of them in combination would have been enough to prove fatal. Someone continued to stab him long, long after it was necessary."

"So, crime of passion, you think?" Morgan asked.

"Perhaps. Or maybe it is just supposed to look that way." She smiled grimly at him, "All those crime shows on TV are causing a rise in really amateur cover-up attempts. It seems that people finally understand that it’s really hard to get away with murder, what with all the microscopic evidence and DNA, so now they’ve decided the best way to get away with it is to try to frame someone else. Luckily for us, they’re usually pretty bad at it."

Morgan grunted his agreement and they both turned back to the body. They studied it in silence for a moment, until a voice rang out from the other side of the room.

"Clark!" a deep male voice bellowed. "What in the hell are you doing here?"

The medical examiner stood up and turned around. Morgan also rose to his feet as a short, stocky, middle aged man in a badly fitting pinstripe suit walked towards them. His face was an unattractive shade of purple, and his eyes narrowed as he stared at both Morgan and the woman beside him.

"Jacobs," she said gently, as if she was soothing a small child, "I am here because Greene sent me. If you have a problem with that, I suggest you speak to him."

Jacobs opened his mouth, then closed it, giving the impression of a large-mouth bass gasping for air. Morgan took a small step forward and thrust his hand out at the man.

"I don’t believe we’ve met," he said, "I’m Captain Morgan."

"I’m Alvin Jacobs, from the District Attorney’s office," Jacobs said, giving Morgan’s hand a brief, perfunctory squeeze.

Morgan saw Clark roll her eyes. Evidently there was no love lost between these two, and Morgan decided that right now he definitely felt like siding with her. Cops and lawyers by nature don’t necessarily get along, but there was something extra-weasely about Jacobs that rubbed him the wrong way. Still, it never paid to piss off anyone in the district attorney’s office, even if his hunch was right and Jacobs was no more than a low-level lackey.

"Nice to meet you," Morgan said gruffly, and turned back to Clark. "How much longer, you think?"

"Oh, we can move the body now. We have pictures of everything, and I think I’ve learned all I can here. I’ll be able to give you a more detailed report once I finish the autopsy. I mean, I can go out on a limb," here she flashed a brief smile, "and say I bet I’ll find that the cause of death is because someone decided to use him as a human pincushion. But what kind of a weapon, trajectory, and all that will have to wait."

"When do you think you’ll have a report?"

"This is a rush case," Clark started, and Jacobs opened his mouth to interject. "By Dr. Greene’s orders," she said forcibly, and Jacob’s jaw snapped shut, "so I’d say I’ll have the preliminary report ready day after tomorrow. The labs will still take about a week, though, so I’d say it’ll be two weeks for the final."

Morgan nodded, and Clark motioned for two men in overalls to bring the gurney in. He watched as they lifted the body into the body bag laying open on top of it, and then wheel the whole thing out, zipping up the bag as they went. Jacobs and Clark followed the gurney, neither saying a word to the other.

Morgan stared at the bloodstained rug for a moment, as if willing it to speak to him. After a moment, he rubbed his chin and circled around the desk, sitting in the plush leather swivel chair. He looked around for the nearest crime scene tech and caught his eye.

"This been dusted yet?" he asked, nodding his head at the desk.

"Only the outside, sir, nothing inside the drawers. Need gloves?" At his nod, the tech whipped out a pair of latex gloves and handed them to Morgan. He pulled them on, wrinkling his nose at the feeling of the powdered interior. He knew from experience that his hands would sweat inside the gloves, and he never got used to the slippery feeling; almost like his skin was loose and sliding around on his hands. Morgan shuddered as he remembered the one time he had seen an M.E. get fingerprints off of a ‘floater’ – a corpse that had been in the water so long it had become bloated and slightly putrefied. He had actually peeled off the skin of the corpse’s hand and put it over his own like a glove. Of course he had also been wearing latex gloves, but still, the impression stayed with Morgan all these years, and he couldn’t shake the feeling that wearing another person’s skin would feel much the same as these stupid gloves. Still, there was no way around it, so he pushed his meandering thoughts away and focused at the task at hand.

The desk was pretty standard, with three drawers down each side and a pencil drawer in the middle. On top of the desk there was a phone and a banker’s lamp. There was a black leather blotter in the center, which Morgan lifted to see if there was anything underneath. There wasn’t. Morgan sighed and hoped that the drawers would help shed a little more light on the mysterious Mr. Irving.

He arbitrarily started on the right hand side and yanked on the lowest drawer. To his surprise, it opened easily. To his dismay, it was empty save for a half-empty box of standard envelopes. The drawer above it also opened, revealing three sets of unopened cellophane wrapped stationary paper. The top right-hand drawer was completely empty. The pencil drawer contained the usual assortment of pens, pencils and paper clips, a few stacks of post-it notes, and a single business card. Morgan reached in and grabbed the ivory card, which had a single symbol in the center. He recognized it, but it took a moment for it to come to him. It was the Greek letter pi. He flipped it over, but there was nothing on the back. He waved over one of the techs, who came forward with an evidence bag. Morgan placed the card inside and was about to go back to searching the desk when he heard a voice behind him.

"You know that’s really the job for the crime scene people, Morgan, and if there are any discrepancies or screw-ups it’s gonna be your ass, now."

Morgan smiled, and turned to face his friend Vince. They had once been partners, before Vince had taken a bullet in the back. He had made quite a comeback, now able to walk with a cane, but his days of being street cop were over. He had transferred to the crime lab, and soon worked his way up to the head of the department.

"Vince!" Morgan greeted him with a heart handshake, half-rising from the chair. Vince waved him back down, leaning one hip against the desk as he studied his friend.

"So what are you doing on this case?" Vince asked casually.

"As if you don’t know," Morgan shot back. "Everyone knows why I was assigned to this case."

"You think it’s because they figure you’ll fail, eh?" Vince frowned at him. "I know that’s the buzz, but," he dropped his voice, "can you keep a secret?"

It was Morgan’s turn to frown. "Sure, Vince," he replied.

"It wasn’t the commissioner that requested you," Vince said softly. "This came from… higher up."

"But," Morgan’s frown deepened, "there’s nothing…" His voice trailed off as his eyes lit in understanding. "They don’t just think this is a local case, do they?"

"Nope," Vince shook his head, "but you don’t know that they want you to prove that, and I sure as hell didn’t tell you."

Morgan nodded, not even bothering to ask how Vince had found out this nugget of information. Vince was one of those guys that knew everybody and everything, and it was usually in your best interest to simply accept what he told you and not go poking about to try to find his sources. Morgan guessed that half of his information came from classified files, either obtained through friends or hacking, and the other half came from his network of spies and informants. But for all he knew, Vince might simply have been psychic. He wasn’t going to ask either way.

"So, does that business card," Morgan nodded to the card in its glassine envelope, "mean anything to you?"

Vince shook his head, and Morgan opened the last three drawers. The top held a few stress-relieving balls in obscene shapes, the middle held a box of Cuban cigars, and the bottom contained a leather bound address book. Eagerly, Morgan picked up the address book, but when he flipped through it, ever page was blank. He frowned and set it on the desktop. Maybe the lab boys could get something out of it.

He turned to survey the room again, swiveling back and forth in the comfortable chair. Vince wandered off to consult with his techs, one of which came up and collected the address book and business card. He listened idly to the snatches of conversation floating around the room. Suddenly a phrase caught his ear.

"You!" he snapped, pointing at a tech who was dusting the fireplace mantel for fingerprints, "What did you say?"

The tech looked startled, and stuttered, "I-I-I said that he-he didn’t need to ‘beware the ides of March,’ he needed to worry about the day before. It was a stupid…"

"No, no. In fact, I think I know what that business card was all about," Morgan said, grinning slightly.

“So?” Vince asked, staring at him from across the room. “What does it mean?”

“You mean you don’t get it?” Morgan’s grin got even wider. “You mean I figured out something that the great Vincent Tortola didn’t?”

Vince adopted a weary expression. “Fine, yes, you know something that I don’t. Now spill it.”

“No, no, no – not so fast,” Morgan said, composing his features into a relaxed expression and half-closing his eyes. “I just need to revel in the moment.”

“Daniel James Morgan, out with it!” Vince growled.

“What are you, my mother? You think using – gasp – all three of my names will subdue me into listening?” Morgan rolled his eyes.

“No,” Vince said thoughtfully, “but maybe your nickname from…”

“So what we have here,” Morgan cut him off quickly, “is a murder that occurred on March 14, just before 2:00. And we have a mysterious card, origin unknown, with the symbol pi, which is…”

Vince’s eyes lit up. “3.14159! Of course – it was… well, not really a warning, but a notice!”

“Exactly. Somebody wanted our boy here to know that they were gunning for him, and they even let him know when it was going to happen. Whether he picked up on it or not…” Morgan trailed off with a shrug.

“Either way,” Vince said thoughtfully, “they were awfully confident in their abilities to do that. Or just plain stupid. But I’m leaning towards the confident, and I bet they had every reason to be so. I think we might be dealing with a professional here.”

“I’m not going to make that leap just yet,” Morgan said slowly. “It’s still possible that the killer was just taunting the victim, and then got lucky that it didn’t blow up in his face.”

“Um, sirs?” a young tech interrupted timidly. “Could you, uh, explain it to us?”

Vince turned to him. “The Greek symbol pi equals 3.1459, right?” They all nodded. “So if this is March 14th – that is, 3-14 and the victim was killed just before 2 – say, perhaps 1:59…” he trailed off as he saw the light of comprehension dawning in their eyes. He turned back to Morgan. “So, what do we have in the way of suspects?”

“Who’s stepping on whose turf now?” Morgan shot back at him, but it was a friendly jibe. “From what I can tell, there were only two full-time servants, and they swear they knew nothing about the room. They’re both fairly new – it seems Irving was in the habit of turning over his staff every 2 months or so – and work for him through a temp agency. They both have long records with the agency, so it’s fairly unlikely that they were slipped in to be assassins. Unlikely, but not impossible. They also have pretty good alibis. But we’re keeping an eye on them. Then there’s his lawyer, who is out of town and unreachable at the moment. Evidently he left on a prolonged trip to the Bahamas about three weeks ago. We’ve looked into it and it does look like he really did leave the country, so if it’s his doing, it doesn’t look like he did the dirty work himself. We’re checking into his communications and finances now. Lastly, there’s the secretary. She’s new, too, and would be a primo suspect, except she has a pretty long work history in this town, and there’s nothing shady in her background. Irving hired her about two and a half weeks ago, and one of her references included his lawyer. Evidently some of his other clients – all who are still alive, mind you – have used her and gave her a very high rating. Those four are the only ones who would have access to the house, let alone this room. And we’re only guessing that the lawyer and secretary knew about it – we haven’t questioned them yet.”

“The staff – where were they when the body was found?” Vince asked.

“That’s another really interesting thing. Irving was planning a dinner party for this weekend – has been for months. He called the caterer today and found that the reservation had never been made, and the caterer was booked solid and couldn’t help. Evidently Irving himself had placed the call to the company, about two weeks ago. He screamed at them for awhile, and when the cook heard the noise she rushed into the library – that’s were he was when he made that call, we’ll be able to confirm that because it’s a separate phone line from the one in here – to see what was up. He told her the story, and she offered to make the food – for some extra money, of course. So he immediately sent her and the housekeeper out to buy food and supplies. They had receipts showing where they had been, and we have officers checking out the businesses to see if anyone remembers them. So we have enough people that remember both of them that it would be nearly impossible for them to have slipped back into the house and killed him. That doesn’t, however, rule them out as conspirators, which is why we’re still keeping a watchful eye on them.”

“And what of this secretary?” Vince frowned. “Where was she?”

“She had the day off, interestingly enough. The housekeeper overheard her asking Irving for today off about a week ago. Dentist appointment in the morning, and then she said something about ‘sprucing herself up’ for the party. Her words, not mine,” Morgan added, when Vince’s lips began to twitch.

“Have you talked to the secretary…?” Vince let the question hang.

“Sarah. Sarah James. No, I was planning on questioning her myself after I was done here. We have a car watching her house, and so far they say they’ve seen lights going on and off, indicating she’s home, but no one has come or gone since they got there at 5:15.”

“Well then,” Vince said with a smile, “how about some company? You never know, you might need to collect some evidence, so it wouldn’t be bad to have a lab guy with you!”

Morgan grinned, and with a few final words to the crime scene techs, they left the mansion and headed for Ms. Sarah James’s house.

Twenty minutes later they were pulling up to the address listed in Ms. James’s employment paperwork. It was a neat little country cottage, located on a quiet little lane in the suburbs. Captain Morgan noticed that the autumn leaves still littered the sidewalk and lawn, and made little skittering sounds as the breeze tossed them about. A thin plume of smoke drifted lazily up from the chimney. They got out of the car, and buttoning their coats against the chill wind walked up to the front door and rang the buzzer.

A woman in a red-stained bathrobe answered the door, a splotchy red towel wrapped around her head. Her pale oval face was classically pretty, and her bright blue eyes widened in surprise at seeing the two men huddled on her stoop. “Hello...” she said tentatively, with more than a touch of suspicion.

“Ms. James?” Morgan extended a hand, “I’m Captain Morgan and this is Vincent Tortola with the crime lab.”

A look of surprise, then confusion, flitted across her face. She automatically reached out and took his hand, and Morgan almost gasped aloud. Her skin was icy cold.

“Have we caught you at a bad time?” Vince asked.

“No, I was just dying my hair,” she said, gesturing to the towel. “It’s so hard to keep a good shade of red, you know, because it fades... But you’re not here to talk about my hair. Why, may I ask, are you here?”

“James St. Irving was found dead about an hour ago.” Morgan said bluntly, studying her face. Again, the look of surprise crossed her face, then she frowned.

“But he was just… I was just…” She shook her head slightly as if to clear it, took a deep breath and continued in a steadier voice, “But certainly the security system captured something. That man had more cameras in that house..”

“The security system wasn’t operational at the time of the murder,” Morgan cut in.

“How…” she started, and then shook her head. “I’m sorry, won’t you come it? It’s freezing out there!” She opened the door wider and stepped to the side to let them pass.

“Thank you,” Morgan said, striding into the small, cluttered, but comfortable living room with the fire blazing in the hearth. He and Vince stood awkwardly for a moment, and Vince wandered over to the mantle and leaned up against it, studying the various knick-knacks that cluttered its surface. Morgan turned to face Sarah James as she followed them into the room.

“Please,” she said, indicating the couch with a wave of her hand. He sat gingerly on the rather ornate, antique couch, worried about its ability to hold up his weight. She sat down opposite him in a wing-backed chair, still looking a little surprised. Her robe gaped open slightly, and Morgan was hard pressed not to stare at the expanse of creamy flesh that was visible. Vince, he noted, was slightly less tactful and eyes were definitely not glued to Ms. James’s face. Morgan suppressed a grin. Vince always was one to be swayed by a pretty girl.

“Ms. James,” Morgan started, but she cut him off.

“Please, call me Sarah,” she said softly.

“Okay, Sarah,” Morgan cleared his throat, “first thing I need to ask you is where you were between 10 am and 4 pm today.”

“Am I a suspect?” Sarah asked in a slightly squeaky voice.

“Everyone is right now, ma’am. We’re just trying to rule people out”

“Well, you’re going to be disappointed, because that’s not going to rule me out,” she said with a sigh. “I had a dentist appointment at 10 - it was a last-minute emergency - and James said I could have the morning off. I was going to be back by noon – would me being there have prevented this?”

“Unlikely, ma’am,” Morgan said gently, because she looked horrified and somewhat guilty.

“Anyway,” she said, drawing a deep breath, “I would have been there around noon, give or take, except we got on the topic of the party, and he started talking about a few of the people he wanted to impress. Seems a few of them were, um, partial to redheads, and he suggested it wouldn’t hurt our prospects if I were to spruce myself – and my color – up a bit.”

Vince pushed away from the mantle and stood up straight, “Did he mean for you to…”

“No, no!” Sarah exclaimed, cutting him off. “It was never anything like that. Just thought they might be more amenable to the deal if there was a little eye candy to distract them. I would never have taken the job had it entailed…”

“So, after your dentist appointment…” Morgan prodded gently, as she trailed off into horrified silence.

“So, I told James that certainly, I’d touch up my color and do my nails,” here she held up her hands, showing 10 perfectly manicured acrylic nails, “and he said that I should just make a day of it, go shopping if I wanted. But I have a perfectly fine dress, so I came back from the dentist appointment and did my nails, watched some TV, and by then the numbness was wearing off so I fixed myself something to eat. That had to be around 2-ish, I’d say. Oh, wait, I had taken a quick shower when I got home, because you can’t have conditioner in your hair to dye it, but without conditioner my hair’s a wreck, so I usually just wash it and let it dry right before hand. So, after lunch my hair was finally dry, and I dyed it, and then took another shower, and… then you showed up.”

“Ms. James – Sarah – would it be okay if we ran some tests on your bathtub, and poked around a bit?” Vince asked.

“By all means,” she said, spreading her hands, which cause the robe to fall open a bit more. She looked at Vince, followed his gaze, and gasped, “But if you don’t mind, can I get dressed first?”

Vince and Morgan exchanged a look, and Sarah hastened to add, “I won’t touch anything, or try to destroy any ‘evidence’ or anything like that. If you’d prefer I can wait until there’s a female officer available, and she can watch me dress, make sure I don’t do anything untoward.”

Morgan grimaced, and said, “That’s probably be a good idea. Just because, well…”

He and Vince looked at one another again, remembering the charges that had surfaced – not in the press, but within the department – on Morgan’s last case. And with the atmosphere as charged as it was against the police now, there was no guarantee any slip-ups would be kept quiet this time.

“I’ll make the call, and get a few techs here while I’m at it,” Vince said and pulled out his cell phone. He drifted into the hallway to make the call, leaving Morgan and Sarah staring self-consciously at one another.

“So…” Morgan said, “So, uh, how…”

“How is it, being a murder suspect?” Sarah supplied helpfully as he trailed off. “How do I feel, having my boss murdered? Or perhaps, how do I think the Mets will do this year?”

“You’re a Mets fan?” Morgan said testily, and Sarah broke into a smile.

“Well, no, I really don’t follow football.”

“Baseball.”

“What?” Sarah asked, her brows furrowed in confusion.

“Baseball. The Mets are a baseball team.” Morgan explained with a smile.

“Oh, see, I told you I didn’t follow sports.” Sarah smiled back at him, one hand unconsciously pulling her robe a little tighter around her. “How long do you think it will take for them to get here?”

“Fifteen or twenty minutes, half an hour on the outside,” Vince said as he strode back into the room. “In the meantime, we can pick your brain about who you think might have killed Irving.”

“Oh,” she said with a frown, “I don’t know how much help I can be there. I only started working for him a few weeks ago, and I really hadn’t gotten to know most of his clients yet. This big get-together was supposed to be our first meeting, you know. I’ve gone through a lot of the files, of course, keeping them up-to-date and doing a little reorganization, but that’s a poor substitute for meeting people in person, you know.”

“Is there anything – anything – you can think of, anything you heard or saw that seemed odd?” Morgan pressed.

“No, nothing,” she answered earnestly. “I wasn’t usually in the same room when James made his phone calls, and there wasn’t anything that I saw anywhere in the files that seemed even slightly personal. No scribbled notes in the margins, no cryptic sentences, nothing like that.”

“You say you had gone through a great number of the files. Enough to get an idea of what the average return on investment was for Irving’s clients?”

“Well, based on what I saw – and realize that it was probably 70% of the total files – the clients were averaging about 11% growth per year. Oh, I’m being a terrible hostess – can I get you gentlemen anything to drink?” she asked suddenly.

Vince shook his head, but Morgan replied, “A glass of water would be nice.”

“Just water? I have tea, lemonade and soda, if you’d rather.”

“What kind of soda?” Morgan asked.

“Pepsi, and I think a few cans of root beer,” she answered.

“A can of Pepsi, then – no need for a glass or anything,” he added hastily.

She walked off into the kitchen and Morgan turned to Vince. “We need someone to go over those financial records. From what I remember hearing, Irving’s clients were averaging somewhere closer to 35% return. So either he has a few clients that are doing unbelievably well, or…”

“Or there’s something fishy going on,” Vince concluded. “I’m on it.”

Vince went back to the hallway to make a few more calls, and Sarah came back out into the living room carrying a can of Pepsi in the crook of her arm, a can of A&W Root Beer in one hand and a small platter of cookies in the other. As she reached him, the can of Pepsi started to slip and he reached out to catch it.

“Thanks!” she said and smiled gratefully.

“No problem,” he said, popping the top and taking a few sips. Then they settled into a conversation about the weather and various other safe topics until the policewoman arrived and Sarah went off to change into some presentable clothing.

Morgan and Vince went into the kitchen and stared out the back door. The back yard was small, but tidy. There were an abundance of bushes and trees that took up most of the space, leaving only a small patch of brown lawn in the center. The trees were teaming with birdfeeders and houses, and there was a birdbath up near the patio. The patio was empty save for one folding lawn chair that looked rather worse for the wear. Morgan opened the sliding glass door and stepped out onto the patio, feeling the cold wind slice through him once again. Vince followed, and together they stared aimlessly about the yard.

“Pity about the storm sewer,” Vince said conversationally.

“What?” Morgan looked confused.

“The storm sewer inlet there,” Vince pointed to a grate in the ground. “One, it means there’s a low point here and you’ll have to worry about flooding. Two, it probably means there are easements, so the property value is decreased.”

Morgan rolled his eyes, “And why do you know all of this?”

“One of my uncles was in the real estate business awhile. Taught all of us kids what to look for in terms of resale value. Other than that, this place is a gem. Wonder how much she paid for it.”

“Well,” Morgan said slowly, casting his eyes frantically about the yard, “well she should also know better than to leave the hose out this long.” He said, pointing to the hose that was coiled next to the house. “And still attached to the bib, no less! That can cause a pipe to burst, and you’ll have flooding for sure.”

“Probably leaves it that way to fill the birdbaths,” Vince replied.

“In the winter it’s much better to just bring a jug of water out from the house, rather than risk flooding the basement. What would that do for your property value?” Morgan arched his eyebrows and looked pointedly at Vince.

“Okay, okay, you win this round,” Vince chuckled good-naturedly. “What on earth makes you so damn competitive, anyway?”

“You’ve met my brothers,” Morgan answered with a smile of his own.

They went back into the house and watched the lab techs search the rest of the house. Morgan went to the bathroom, and Vince hung out in the bedroom.

“So, find anything?” Morgan asked the young tech who was kneeling over the bathtub.

“There’s plenty of red on this hair,” he indicated the plug he’d pulled up from the shower drain. “But it tests negative for blood. Same for the sink here and the kitchen sink. I’m guessing this red is from the hair dye.”

Moran looked at the nearby trash can, which has a Clairol box perched on top of the various bits of waste. A spent bottle of dye and used plastic gloves sat on the counter. There were also the usual bits cosmetics scattered about the bathroom, and nothing struck his eye as terribly unusual. Still, he stopped by the photographer on the way back to the living room to make sure that he got pictures of every room, every angle. He wasn’t taking a chance at missing anything this time.

He sat back down on the couch and sipped some more Pepsi. Sarah was once again seated in the wing back chair, watching the activity buzzing around her with wide eyes. Vince was back up against the fireplace, eyeing the family photos perched there.

“There aren’t any pictures of you here,” he said suddenly.

She jumped at the sound of his voice, but then smiled. “Why would I want pictures of me out? If I want to see me, I can look in a mirror. I’d much rather have pictures of my friends and family to look at.”

Vince considered this, and finally nodded in agreement. Morgan frowned at her. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but something seemed a little… off. Vince would tell him he was being paranoid again, and even though he understood that it was probably just that he couldn’t shake the feeling. He didn’t actually believe there was anything wrong, not with the logical part of his brain, but there was just that feeling. He surreptitiously slipped out his phone – the new model with the built-in camera – and snapped a quick picture of Sarah. Surely it was a silly thing to do, she had to be in dozens of the photographer’s photos, but he still felt better for having done it. No one was going to nail him for a single undotted ‘i’ or uncrossed ‘t’ this time around.
Vince mopped his brow. “My, this fire sure is making the room a little toasty now, with all these people in it.”

“Oh, the switch is just to your right, there, if you want to turn it off,” Sarah said, waving a hand towards the side of the fireplace.

“Switch?” Vince asked blankly.

“It’s a gas fireplace,” she said, “so you just flip that little light-switch and it turns it off. Much more convenient – though not as warm – as a conventional fireplace.”

“Cool,” Vince said as he flipped the switch and the flames immediately disappeared. The stayed there for another 15 minutes, until the crime team had finished up and were out the door. Morgan stood up to go and picked up the almost finished can of Pepsi.

“You can leave that if you’re done with it,” Sarah said as she stood up to usher them to the door.

“No, there’s a little bit left, and I hate to waste it,” Morgan smiled, and after a second she returned his smile. She led them to the door and saw them out. Morgan saw her standing at the door, watching them go as he backed out of the driveway and turned into the street.

Morgan strolled up to the front of the county building at 8:25 the next morning, and was rather surprised to see Vince loitering on the sidewalk, apparently waiting for him.

“You here for the autopsy, then?” Vince fell into step next to him as Morgan strode past him to the door.

“No, I’m here to ask Clark out. She seemed like a hot little number,” Morgan replied sarcastically. “And I find that woman are unaccountably attracted to men they first meet over dead bodies.”

“Ah, I’d believe that if you even knew her first name,” Vince replied cheerily.

Morgan glared at him. “I know who she is,” he retorted testily.

“So her full name is?” Vince prodded him.

Morgan thought hard. Her name had to have been on one of those employee rosters that were always handed out. Truth be told, he never paid much attention to them, but thought that is he could just picture it in his mind, he might… “Rachel!” he cried out suddenly.

“Oh, so close!” Vince grinned. “But I’ll spare you the embarrassment of having to ask and the effort of looking it up. Her name is Rebecca, and she hates it when people call her Becky. Additionally, she’s only lived here for three years, being originally from Maine. She has two brothers, no sisters, and no close relatives in the city. Her favorite color is blue, and she has a beautiful tattoo of a butterfly on her left hip.”

“You made that last bit up,” Morgan grouched. He didn’t doubt the rest, though, as Vince had a way of finding things out about people, and he had an amazing memory for those details.

“Yeah,” Vince grinned, “I did. And I sincerely hope that if she has a tattoo, it’s a lot less cliché than a butterfly.”

They reached the reception area of the medical examiner’s office and flashed their IDs to get into the back. Once through the heavy doors, they headed back to the autopsy suite. Clark was already gowned and working on Irving, talking into a recorder held by an assistant. She looked up an nodded as they entered.

“Thought you might show up for this,” she said without pausing in her work. “You haven’t missed anything yet.”

They stood and watched her work for a little while not saying anything. As she tallied up the stab wounds, she said, “This many wounds would usually indicate a crime of passion. But the wounds don’t show any of the raggedness usually associated with such a crime. They look very even, and very deliberate. I would not say the victim was killed in a fit of rage, though it may have been the killer’s intent to make it appear so.”

“So this ‘pi’ murder was cold and calculated?” Vince asked.

“Yes, but not precisely,” Clark said with a giggle.

Morgan and Vince both looked at each other and groaned at the pun. Clark looked at them sternly.

“You thought it was clever,” she said haughtily, “admit it!”

“My dearest Rebecca,” Vince said smoothly, “your charm and wit have moved me like never before. I beseech thee to marry me at once!”

“I should take you up on that,” she said dryly. “But I know better. You’ll never love anyone as much as you love yourself.”

“Oh, how thy sharp words have wounded my very soul!” Vince cried melodramatically.

“Yeah, okay, there Vince,” Morgan said, shaking his head. Turning to Clark he said, “Just tell him you’re already so in love with me, because of that moment we shared over the victim in the study.”

She laughed, and Vince shook his head sadly. “You’ll never know what you missed out on.”

“And that’s a bad thing?’ Morgan shot back.

“Oh!” Clark said suddenly, looking down at the corpse. “Well, we know one thing for certain. Your killer had good aim. There’s a hole clean through the left ventricle. If this was the first blow, your victim would have been unconscious within minutes. In fact, that would explain why all the other wounds show no ripping around the entrances. The victim was already unconscious or dead when they were inflicted. And if that is the case, what looks like a horrific murder was actually quite, well, humane, if you can say such a thing about a murder.”

“So our killer was homicidal, but thoughtful?” Morgan suggested sardonically.

Clark frowned at him. “This is a serious issue. It completely changes the…”

“I know, I know,” Morgan cut her off. “It was just such an odd thing to hear about a murder.”

“I understand,” Clark said. “But there’s really no other way to put it, and it is an important point.”

“So you think it’s a professional hit, badly covered up as a crime of passion?” Morgan asked.

“Or the hit man didn’t have the heart to cause the suffering that would have resulted from the multiple stab wounds,” Vince suggested.

“A compassionate hit man,” Clark said, shaking her head slowly.

“No,” Morgan said grimly. “Not a hit man at all…”

“You’re thinking of Sarah, aren’t you?” Clark asked. She stopped working and looked up at him. “And you’d think a female killer would explain a lot, if you go based on general gender profiling. You know, the fairer sex and all. But in all honesty, women commit some of the most vicious, vindictive crimes out there.”

“When you’re talking about crimes of passion, yes,” Morgan agreed. “But I’m willing to bet this is not a crime of passion, but a premeditated murder. And the killer didn’t necessarily want it to look that way, otherwise… I have a feeling he might have been poisoned. Certainly easier to pull off, given the security system.”

“But an assassin would be in and out and wouldn’t wait around for the police, so why bother making it look like anything else?” Vince mused.

“There’s something we’re missing. The killer was a little sloppy in that they were too merciful to do it in a convincingly violent manner. But there was a reason for the attempted cover-up, I know it,” Morgan said as he began pacing the room.

“Something you were supposed to find, perhaps?” Clark asked.

“Something to do with his shady financial dealings?” Vince asked.

“But you’d think if that was the case, they’d have wanted it to look like an assassination. That’d put us right on the idea of a business deal gone bad,” Morgan said. “If we’re right – and it’s still a big if – then there’s something else. Something we’re missing.”

“So do you still think Sarah might be the killer?” Clark asked.

“Yes,” Morgan replied shortly.

“Well, we’ll soon know when the evidence we’ve collected is processed. If there was a trace of blood in that house, we’ll find it,” Vince said assuredly.

“Not if it was burned,” Morgan said grimly.

“There’d still be traces of it in the fireplace,” Clark said.

“Ah, but you see, no one collected anything from the fireplace, because there was still a fire burning,” Morgan said, and Vince slapped his forehead.

“Oh my god, I’ll need to get a lab guy out there now, if it isn’t already too late,” Vince said, flipping open his phone and rapidly dialing.

Clark and Morgan stood quietly while he made his call. Finally, Vince closed the phone with a snap and said, “They’ll have a team out there in 30 minutes.”

“Okay, but the clothes weren’t the only thing that would have been bloody. She’d have to wash up somewhere. I mean, yes, you can burn the clothes, but yourself and the weapon…” Clark trailed off, looking back and forth between the two men.

“And my boys will find any trace of blood that was in that house – rest assured of that,” Vince said.

“That’s the problem,” Morgan replied. “They only looked in the house. And any evidence that we might have found there… well, it was a long shot before, and with the rain last night…”

“The storm sewer.” Vince said.

“I should have put it all together. Her hands were like ice when I got there, but I didn’t put it together.” Morgan said, shaking his head sadly.

“What?” Clark looked bewildered.

“Keep up, Clark!” Vince teased, “Sarah washed up outside. She probably used the garden hose and – if she’s as smart as she so far appears to be – took the cover off the inlet and stepped down into the inlet. Those grate-top ones usually aren’t too deep. And if she was really smart, there was a bunch of leaves in the bottom, so none of the blood came in contact with the concrete. And either her hose or the rain, or a combination of both, washed those leaves far, far away.”

“Even if we could get enough of a sample off of the leaves, finding one with blood on it further down the system would be unlikely, if not impossible,” Morgan said glumly.

“But how do you know she burned the clothes?” Clark asked suddenly. “Maybe she didn’t, and those are still viable evidence.”

Morgan looked at Vince with a crooked smile, one eyebrow slightly raised. Vince narrowed his eyes, wordlessly accepting the challenge.

“Well,” Vince started, “There was smoke coming up from the chimney when we came in, but there was a fire going, so there’s nothing unusual…” He broke off, a look of astonishment on his face. “Of course! Why didn’t I see it then?”

“See what?” Clark asked, bewildered.

“After we’d been there awhile, Vince complained about being hot. Sarah told him he could go ahead and turn off the fireplace. It was a gas fireplace, and you could just flip it on and off with a light switch,” Morgan explained.

“Well, forgive me for being a little dense, but what does that tell you?” she asked defensively.

“Gas fireplaces don’t smoke,” Vince told her. “We might have seen some heat distortion coming out of the top of the chimney, but not smoke.”

“Unless there was a bird’s nest or something in the chimney that had caught on fire,” Clark said.

“True, but you know the saying about hoof beats, horses and zebras,” Morgan said. “I’m not ready to go looking for a zebra when there’s a perfectly good horse explanation! Or, something profound and poetic like that.”

“Okay, supposing you geniuses are right on so far. There’s still one more thing,” Clark said.

“The murder weapon,” Vince and Morgan said in unison.

“Right,” Clark replied. “And that she couldn’t have washed away in the sewer, or burned in the fireplace. Based on these wounds the blade had to have been at least ten inches long. So it’s not something you’d hide easily. Though even if you do find the murder weapon, you’ll still have to tie it too her. Assuming, of course, you’re right and she is the killer. It’s still on conjecture, you know.”

“I’m not ruling anything out, but right now she’s our most likely suspect,” Morgan said. “Do you have a copy of the crime scene photos handy?”

“Of course,” Clark said, indicating a small metal desk to the side of the room. “They’re in that folder on the top.”

Morgan walked over to the desk and pulled out a handful of 8”x10” photos. He walked over to a vacant autopsy table and spread them out. Vince ambled over to stare at them with him as Clark got back to work finishing up the autopsy. They stood, side by side, staring at the pictures until Vince’s phone rang. He answered it curtly, and both Clark and Morgan looked up as his voice rose.

“What do you mean?” He demanded.

“Are you sure? Positive?”

“No trace? Yeah, keep me updated.” He snapped the phone shut again and turned to look at Morgan.

“Little Sarah has flown the coop. And she’s left behind no trace of herself.”

“What do you mean?” Clark asked, coming over to the table of photographs to join them. She had finished the autopsy and left it to her assistant to close the body and clean up.

“There are no personal effects left behind. No letters, photographs, nothing that shows that woman was ever in the house,” Vince said bitterly.

“That woman?’ Clark frowned. “That’s an odd way to put it.”

“Let me guess,” Morgan sighed. “She’s not Sarah James.”

“How did you know?” Vince asked, surprised. “And why didn’t you say anything?”

“I thought – hoped – I was just being paranoid,” Morgan said. “It started out as just a feeling. And I thought, okay, I was just being paranoid. But the Pepsi can… that cinched it.”

“What Pepsi can?” Clark asked.

“She gave me a can of Pepsi while we were waiting for the forensic team and the female police officer to show up. She brought it out in the crook of her arm, because she had a few other things in her hands – a can of Root Beer for her, and a plate of cookies. I grabbed it as she passed me because it started to slip. But it wasn’t an accident; she did that on purpose. Think about it, if you’re bringing out three things – a can of pop for yourself, a can of pop for someone else, and a plate, how would you carry it?” Morgan asked.

Vince looked blank. Clark answered, “I would hold my can in the crook of my arm, and the other can and the plate in my hands. That way, I could hand the can to my guest, then grab my can and set both it and the plate on the table. If that makes sense”

“Exactly. I couldn’t think what seemed so wrong about that until I replayed it in my mind. And even that, in itself, wasn’t definitive. It was just odd. But I dusted the can for prints last night, just on a hunch. The only fingerprints on it were mine,” Morgan explained.

“So she wiped the can down, set it in her arm with a towel or something, just on the off chance you’d take the can with you?” Vince asked. “Color me impressed, that’s thinking.”

“Let me ask you another question,” Morgan said. “Did your boys get any photos of her?”

“They didn’t say. Let me ask.” Vince again flipped open his phone and made a quick call. While they waited for the techs to sift through the pictures, they speculated on the murder weapon.

“Even if you find it,” Clark said, “I would be willing to bet there’s no way to connect it to… what should we call her, anyway?”

“Good question. Jane Doe seems too cliché, and Agent X seems too manly,” Morgan said.

“We should have something to call her, since we know she’s not Sarah. How do we know that, by the way?” Clark directed her question at Vince.

He covered the mouthpiece of the phone and said softly, “Driver’s license photo. They pulled it, and all the techs agree that wasn’t the woman they saw there. They were already in the process of sifting through the photos for a reference, just to be sure, though. They were already about halfway done, so it shouldn’t be but a few more minutes.”

“Well, we have to call her something,” Morgan said pragmatically. “Just pick a name, Clark.”

“Really, call me Rebecca,” Clark said. “All this macho last-name stuff is too manly for a wee little girlie like me.” She fluttered her eyelashes in a ludicrously exaggerated flirting motion, but ruined the move by bursting out laughing. Morgan smiled at her.

“Rebecca it is,” he said softly. Had she been the romantic schoolgirl type she would have said his low voice sent shivers down her spine. But, as she was much older and at least a little wiser, she recognized it for what it was: lust, plain and simple. And it wasn’t surprising. It’d been awhile, after all. Guys don’t generally beat down the door of an average-looking M.E. to try and seduce her into bed. And Morgan was pretty good-looking, in a gruff way. She studied him for a moment, noting the fine lines around the corners of his blue eyes, the stubble on his chin, and his slightly thinning short brown hair. He wasn’t the kind of guy that women would drool over, but he looked solid and dependable, and at her age, those were terrible attractive qualities.

“Rebecca?” he said again, and she started. He smiled at her. “You were woolgathering. Penny for your thoughts!”

“Buddy, my thoughts will cost you at least a dime!” she shot back.

He dug into his pocket and flipped her a dime. “So?”

“Uh,” she hesitated, trying to think fast.

“No thinking up something else. What were you thinking about? It’s not a hard question.” He teased.

“I was wondering how old you were,” she said lamely. At least it wasn’t a lie, it just wasn’t the whole truth. She had a feeling he’d be able to tell if she was lying.

“Thirty-eight. You?”

“Don’t you know it’s not polite to ask a woman her age?”

“Who ever said I was polite?”

“Fine,” she pouted. “I’m thirty-two.”

“Married? Boyfriend?” he asked, then added, “Girlfriend?”

“No, no, and wouldn’t you like to know?” she gave him what she hoped was a saucy look.

“Yes,” he said, leaning closer. “Yes, I would.”

“Okay, they’re done.” Vince said suddenly, and both Morgan and Clark jumped. Vince shook his head at them. “You two can flirt later. We have no pictures of this Sarah imposter, and we need to find out who she was.”

“We weren’t…” Clark stuttered and turned pink.

“Yes, you were,” Vince said, “and you can pick up later where you left off. Right now we need to brainstorm on how to find this woman. And that means I need Morgan to be able to think with something other than…”

“Wait!” Morgan broke in. “I do have a picture of her.”

Both of them turned to him; Vince slightly annoyed at having his witty monologue cut short, Clark happy to have a change of topic. Morgan pulled out his phone and showed them the picture he’d taken.

“I don’t know what made me do it,” he said. “Just a feeling, really. And it’s not the greatest quality, but it should be of some use.”

“You bet it will!” Vince grabbed the phone out of his hand and e-mailed the picture to the lab. “They’ll be able to compare that to Sarah’s DMV picture, and should be able to determine it’s not the same woman. Though I don’t think there’s much doubt. Evidently the real Sarah is… not so attractive, and our Sarah was, for lack of a better word, hot.”

“Hot, eh?” Clark arched an eyebrow at him.

“Yeah,” he smiled. “But I still love you more.”

“I bet you say that to all the M.E.’s you work with,” she teased back.

“Only the ones I haven’t slept with … yet.” He winked at her, and Morgan cleared his throat.

They both turned to him and he said, “Shouldn’t we be getting over to Sarah James’s house?”

“Yes,” said Vince. “And we should bring Ms. Rebecca along with us. She can help us look for a probable murder weapon, since she has the best idea what we’re looking for.”

“Oh, you know what to look for,” Clarks started, but Vince cut her off.

“Oh, come on, you know you want to go. And what else do you have to do, but stay in this dark basement, cutting up dead bodies and filling out paperwork?” Vince started shooing them towards the door. “Morgan, you drive Rebecca over to the house, I’m going to swing by the lab and grab a few things.”

“Oh, I can drive…” Clark started to protest, but Vince cut her off again.

“It’s kind of hard to find. Matt,” he called out to the assistant over his shoulder, “Rebecca will be back in a bit. You have things under control here?”

“Sure thing, Vince,” Matt called back, and waved them out.

“Methinks we’d just better do as he says,” Morgan said softly in Clark’s ear.

“I think you’re right,” she grinned. “Let me just grab my coat and purse from my office.”

Morgan and Clark followed Vince out of the building, and Morgan led Clark to his beat-up pickup truck. He gallantly opened the passenger side door, which gave a loud squeak of protest. Clark climbed in gingerly, and Morgan went around and hopped in to the driver’s seat.

“If I’d known I was having company, I’d have brought my other car,” he said lightly.

“Oh, what else do you have?”

“Do you want the ‘I’m trying to impress you’ answer or the honest answer?”

“Hmmm, how about both?”

“Well,” he said slowly, looking her up and down, “you don’t look like the type of girl that a Corvette would impress as much as, say, a nice SUV. But nothing too flashy like a Hummer or an Expedition. I’d say… how about a Ford Explorer?”

“I don’t know that it would impress me all that much,” she said thoughtfully. “In truth, I’m not much of an SUV kind of girl.”

“Okay, a nice sedan, then? How about a Toyota Camry?”

“You set your sights pretty low, there. What about saying a Mercedes or Jaguar?”

“But I have to keep it reasonable. It has to be a car you’d believe I could afford, doesn’t it? Or it’s just too obvious that it’s a lie,” he said matter-of-factly.

“True, true. So, what’s the real answer?”

He sighed. “The real answer is that I don’t have another car.”

“Oh.” She frowned. “So, you were just being funny, then.”

“Apparently not,” he said without any rancor.

“I didn’t mean funny funny, I meant,” she broke off when she saw him smiling at her. “Well, what else can we make awkward small talk about, then?”

“We can discuss where you’d like to go out to dinner with me,” he said without looking at her.

“Or, we could discuss when you’re going to ask me out to dinner,” she said haughtily.

“I believe I just did.”

“You most certainly did not! You made a brash statement in the assumption that there would be no way I’d turn down a chance to go out on a date with the fabulous Captain Morgan.” She frowned suddenly. “I don’t even know your first name!”

“Daniel. Now, what’s your favorite type of food?”

“Well, Daniel, not that it means I’m going out to dinner with you, but I happen to love Mexican food,” she said stubbornly.

“Well, Rebecca,” she said, mimicking her haughty tone, “what is it I have to do to ‘properly’ ask you out on a date?”

“First off, mockery does not help your case. Secondly, the longer you act like a horse’s ass, the more you’re going to have to do to plead your case.” She crossed her arms over her chest.

Suddenly, he pulled the truck off to the side of the road. He put it in park and turned to her. He gently grasped the sides of her face and turned her towards him, leaning his face very close to hers.

“Rebecca,” he said softly, his lips inches from hers, “would you go out to dinner with me?”

She stared at his mouth, willing it to close the gap and kiss her, but he didn’t move. His thumbs gently caressed her cheeks as he awaited her answer, and it was all she could do to keep from throwing herself on him. “Yes,” she finally whispered.

“Great!” he said, pulling back abruptly and putting the truck back in gear. “How about Saturday night? Say, eight o’clock?”

“Sure,” she said, still dazed, and they drove the rest of the way in silence.

When they arrived at the house, they found Vince’s car already in the driveway with the rest of the forensic team’s cars.

“Yeah, had to swing by the lab,” Morgan said with a wry smile.

Rebecca gave him a shaky smile in return and climbed out of the truck. She strode to the front door of the cottage without waiting for Morgan to follow her. She felt wrung out and limp, unsure if Morgan was just playing with her. From Vince, she would have expected something like that. But she could have handled it from him, because she wouldn’t have reacted that way to his face so close to her. She reached the living room of the cottage, closed her eyes and groaned.

“So, when’s the date?” she heard Vince say, and opened her eyes to find him standing right in front of her, grinning like a Cheshire cat.

“Vince, I need to talk to you. Later. In private,” she said urgently.

“Sure, no problem.” He took her by the shoulders and looked into her eyes. “Is everything all right, babe?”

“Yes. And no. I don’t know,” she gave a little laugh.

He smiled and patted her on the arm. “It’ll be okay.”

Morgan came through the door then and Vince released her and turned to him. “We haven’t been able to find any physical evidence we can link to our mystery girl. I can only guess that she wasn’t really living here, just showed up that afternoon figuring this would be one of the first places we’d come.”

“There has to be something,” Morgan said.

“Well, there might be, but we need something to compare it too, you know,” Vince said defensively. “As it is, we can’t even rule out anything, because we don’t have the real Sarah to compare anything to, either.”

“Where is the real Sarah?” Clark asked.

“We don’t know,” Vince said. “Nobody knows.”

“According to the records,” Morgan said, “she’s lived here for 10 years. Surely her neighbors noticed something.”

“Not really. They didn’t notice anything, which evidently wasn’t that unusual. Sarah evidently went on extended business trips occasionally, so no one thought anything of it that they hadn’t seen her on a week or two. That’s the other thing that makes me think our Sarah had a base of operation elsewhere,” Vince concluded.

“So no one has reported Sarah missing? Does anyone know where she is?” Clark asked.

“No,” Vince said. “We couldn’t track down any immediate family. She was an only child, both parents deceased. Her extended family has infrequent contact with her, and has no idea where she might be.”

“Friends?” Morgan asked.

“It seems she only really had contact with the people she worked for. And since she had just quit a job, they assumed she had simply moved on. They said she was rather reclusive and didn’t socialize outside of work, anyway,” Vince said.

“So we don’t know if she’s just on vacation or has been kidnapped,” Morgan said grimly.

“Nope. No idea if she’s dead or alive, and not a clue as to where to start looking.”

“I bet there’s one person who knows where Sarah is,” Clark said thoughtfully.

“Oh?” Morgan and Vince said in unison.

“The fake Sarah,” she said. “Though I don’t know where we’d… wait, there’s one chance.”

Morgan and Vince stared at her. She smiled at them.

“What? I thought of something that both the Great Detectives overlooked? For one shining moment I’m not only smarter than one of you, but smarter than both of you?”

They both narrowed their eyes at her, still not saying anything.

“Let me revel in this moment.” She closed her eyes and smiled. After a minute Vince cleared his throat. “Still reveling,” she said without opening her eyes.

“The dentist!” Morgan said suddenly.

“Crap,” Clark said, opening her eyes with a sigh. “Yeah, that’s it. It’s a slim chance, I mean, I doubt it’s her regular dentist and she could have been there for a simple filling, but… I think it’s the only lead we have, so cross your fingers!”

“Okay, here’s hoping for a bridge!” Morgan pulled out his phone and called the office. Vince and Clark drifted off into the kitchen.

“Feel like telling me what’s wrong, now?” Vince asked gently.

“It’s nothing, I’m sure, I just…”

“Nervous about getting back into the dating game?”

“Of course, but who wouldn’t be? Can you blame me?”

“No, no, of course not. But you have to jump back in sometime, and I can’t think of a better guy than Morgan. Honestly.” He looked at her intently.

She dropped her eyes to the floor, unwilling or unable to meet his gaze. “I know, I know.”

“And you can always come to me if you need to. I can even talk to him if…”

“No!” she cut him off sharply, and took a deep breath. “If – and this is a big if – anything has to be said it’ll be me who says it, okay? You swore…”

“And I meant it,” he grinned and made the age-old lip zipping gesture. “Not a word.”

“Not a word about what?” Morgan asked from the doorway. “What are you two in here conspiring to do?”

“Why,” Clark said slyly, sliding past him, “to break your heart, of course!”

“I don’t get that girl,” Morgan said to Vince. “One minute she looks like she’s about to cry, or have a nervous breakdown, and the next she’s flirty as all get-out.”

“Yeah, she’s a strange one. I’m never quite sure what’s the façade with her.” Vince shook his head as if to clear it. “Did you find the dentist?”

“Yeah, it’s a Dr. Morton on West 83rd Street. Shall we?”

Then walked back into the living room to find Clark deep in discussion with one of the techs. Vince intervened in the conversation long enough to give her his car keys. She looked startled, then disappointed, then angry.

“But it was my idea!” she yelled after them as they went out the front door.

Vince turned back and yelled, “No, it was Morgan’s idea. You were still busy gloating, remember?”

She stuck her tongue out at him, and he smiled at her as he closed the door.

Morgan was waiting for him in the car. Vince slid into the passenger’s seat and closed his eyes with a sigh. They drove in silence for awhile, each lost in their own thoughts. Finally, Morgan turned to Vince.

“What is the deal with you and Clark?”

“What do you mean?”

“Dude. C’mon. I know there’s some history there.”

“Did you just call me ‘dude’? Ring, ring – hello, this is the 80s and we want our expression back!”

“It’s back in fashion, thank you very much, and don’t evade the question,” Morgan snapped.

“It was never ‘in fashion’ and I’ll evade if I want to evade,” Vince said peevishly.

“I just want to know if… if me dating her is going to be a problem.”

“Not with me, no.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Just that. I won’t have a problem with it.”

“But someone might, is that what you’re saying?”

“No,” Vince looked at him, “but there’s always a chance that there will be problems – complications, if you will – but if you really like her then you’ll be able to deal with them.” Vince snorted suddenly. “Man, how melodramatic is that?”

“And vague. Melodramatic, and vague. And cryptic. Melodramatic, vague and cryptic.” Morgan grinned at him. “And kind of girly…”

“Shut up… dude.”

Morgan rolled his eyes, but kept quiet until they pulled up in front of the dentist’s office. There weren’t too many cars in the parking lot, so they hoped they’d be able to catch the dentist and have a word with him.

They walked into the office and introduced themselves to the receptionist. She was cool, but courteous, and informed them that the dentist was out today, but that they could talk to the hygienist. She might know as much, and perhaps more, her tone implied, as the dentist did.

They were introduced to a pleasantly plump middle-aged woman with a round, friendly face. She introduced herself simply as ‘Melissa’ and ushered them into a back office.

“What can I do for you?” she asked after they were settled.

“You had a patient in here yesterday. Yesterday morning. Bit of a last-minute appointment, I think. Looked like this,” Morgan said, handing her his phone with the grainy photo of the faux Sarah.

“Oh! I remember her. Yes, she had a bridge coming loose.”

“YES!” Vince looked smug. Melissa gave him a startled look.

“Ignore him,” Morgan said, and lowered his voice conspiratorially. “He’s a little… off.” He made a circular motion with his hand at the side on his head. She smiled back at him. “What else can you tell us?”

“Not a lot. We had to start up a file because she was a new patient, you know, name, insurance and all that. But I don’t think I can… you know, confidentiality and all…”

“Let me just ask you a few questions, and see if it’s worth us getting a warrant. Did she give her name as Sarah James?” Melissa nodded. “And was there a serial number on the bridge that was noted in the file?” Melissa hesitated, and nodded again.

“Okay,” Morgan said, getting to his feet. “We’ll be back with a warrant. Thank you very much.”

Morgan and Vince walked back to the car, Morgan already on his cell phone arranging for the warrant. He closed the phone with a snap and turned to Vince. “It’s our lucky day. Judge Herman is in the office, and more than willing to sign a warrant. I have Officer Petty typing one up, and we can swing by, grab it, get it signed and be back at the dentist’s office before they close today.”

“Wow, that’s … coincidental.”

“I know, I’m not used to things being quite that easy.”

“It’s easy… too easy…” Vince grinned.

“Hey, sometimes a quickly signed warrant is… um, just a sign of efficiency.”

“Okay, Freud. Let’s go get that warrant.”

Before they could even get to the office, Vince’s phone rang. Morgan listened to his side of the conversation as he weaved through the thickening traffic.

“Hello. And how are… Ah, I see. Bugger… Yes, that’s a possibility… I don’t see why not, but I can… Oh? Well, yes, I… Okay, but call if there’s anything… I know, I know… Bye.”

“What was that all about?” Morgan asked.

“Hmm? Oh that, nothing.” Vince tried to look casual.

“Yeah, right. What did Clark want?”

“What makes you think it was Clark?”

“The way your voice changes when you talk to her.”

“It does not!” Vince looked aghast at the very thought.

“Oh, but it does. Your talk all soft-like and soothingly. Not quite as a lover, more as… a parent, perhaps. Gentle and kind.” Morgan smirked. “I’m surprised not to hear things like ‘snookie-wookums’ and…”

“You are so full of…” Vince started, exasperation and venom dripping from his voice.

“Perception?” Morgan cut in helpfully.

“Yeah, not really what I was going for there.”

“Understanding?”

“Hmm, not that either.”

“Wisdom?”

“You wish. Look, I don’t … I mean I’m not…” Vince looked uncomfortable, and Morgan was surprised. He’d never seen Vince look uncomfortable. Vince was one of those smooth characters that let everything roll off his back, and never seemed the least bit ruffled. Yet here he was, practically squirming in his seat.

“We’re here!” Morgan said with forced cheerfulness.

“I don’t talk to her any differently than anyone else,” Vince finally ground out.

“Yeah, okay, sure,” Morgan said. “What did happen between the two of you? Because I don’t believe for a second that it was nothing.” Morgan stopped at the door and turned to Vince. “I don’t want to date her if there’s something…”

“No,” Vince said softly. “It’s nothing like that, but it’s not my place to tell, you understand?”

“No, but there’s not much I can do about it, is there?”

“Not a thing,” Vince said as he turned to open the door. Then he stopped and said very seriously, “But if you hurt her…”

“You’ll have to hurt me. I get it. You are protective of her… “ Morgan trailed off as they went into the office.

“That’s one way of putting it,” Vince said softly.

They climbed the steps to the detective room and Morgan picked up the newly typed warrant, checking it over to make sure it was correct. “The courts are so nit-picky these days, you know?” he said to Officer Petty.

“Yeah,” he said. “Last month a case was thrown out because of a typo. A typo!” He shook his head sadly.

“This looks good, though, thanks. You are the premiere warrant-writer in this city, you know.”

“Glad I’ve found my niche. But seriously, it’s to the point where you need someone to do it full-time, someone who knows the ins and outs of the legal system.”

“Janice still pushing to get you off the streets, eh?”

“My campaign that obvious?” Petty grinned sheepishly. “Yeah, ever since the baby… She wants me behind a desk, and since that incident last year, I can’t say I disagree with her.”

“I can understand that,” Morgan said, thinking back to the two weeks that Officer Petty had been held captive by the serial killer dubbed ‘The Scalpel’ and what he must have seen. Petty didn’t talk about it much, but from what he’d been able to piece together… it was amazing he hadn’t quit the force altogether. “You make a good point, though, so don’t give up on your campaign!”

“Will do… er, won’t do, that is…” Petty trailed off, looking confused.

Morgan smiled and went over to collect Vince who was flirting outrageously with one of the more voluptuous secretaries. He practically had to drag Vince away and up the stairwell.

“Man, we were connecting there. Five more minutes, and I’d have had a date,” Vince whined.

“She’s married.”

“And your point is…?”

Morgan gave Vince a disgusted look, and Vince just grinned at him. “I’m kidding, of course. Messing with married women is trouble I don’t need right now.”

“Ever.” Morgan said flatly.

“Yeah, sorry,” Vince said. “I shouldn’t joke about that.”

“It’s okay,” Morgan sighed. “I’m over it.”

“No you’re not.”

“No, I’m not,” Morgan agreed ruefully. “But I do hope to be someday.”

They arrived at the judge’s door and knocked softly. After hearing the hearty “Enter!” bellowed from inside the room they pushed the door open and stepped inside. Judge Herman, a mountain of a man, sat perched behind a wide expanse of cluttered desk. He had a tiny pair of reading glasses perched on his nose and he didn’t look up from the document he was reading as they entered the room. They stood silently and let him finish the page. Finally, he looked up and them and slowly removed his glasses.

“And what can I do for you gentlemen today?” he asked in a surprisingly soft voice.

“We need a warrant signed to get some dental records. We have reason to believe the serial number on a bridge may shed some light on the identity of our chief murder suspect,” Morgan said.

“You don’t say,” Herman said, taking the sheet and scanning the warrant. “This looks pretty good. Must be another Petty Warrant.”

“Yes, sir,” Morgan replied, “he’s quickly becoming an expert at it.”

“So many things that can go wrong with the little technical details of a case, you know. Just last year a conviction was thrown out because some witness testified that some TV show had an episode with a certain plot, and they named the wrong TV show. How stupid is that?” Herman picked up the pen and scrawled his signature at the bottom. “Good luck.”

“Thank you, sir,” Morgan said and they walked back down to the car.

They were just getting into the car when Vince spoke up. “Hey, is it lunchtime yet? I’m starving.”

“Well past lunchtime, actually,” Morgan admitted as his stomach, as if on cue, gave a rumble.

“Let’s stop somewhere on the way to the dentist. We’ll still get there before they close for the day.”

“Sure, what did you have in mind? It has to be something fast, though.”

“There’s a little bar and grill outfit just two blocks from the dentist’s office called Terry’s – they make a great Rueben!”

“Ah, you know my weakness. Terry’s it is!”

They made their way to Terry’s and snagged a booth at the back. Morgan ordered a burger and a pop, Vince opted for the salad and a glass of tea.

“Since when did you become such a health nut?” Morgan asked Vince, eyeing him suspiciously.

“Not by choice,” Vince grumbled. “Doc said my cholesterol’s the worst he’s ever seen on something that still has a heartbeat, and just last month my Uncle Jimmy dropped dead of a heart attack.”

Morgan frowned thoughtfully. “Wasn’t your Uncle Jimmy like 95 years old?”

“89, actually. He was the first in memory not to make it to 90. Looks like the family’s health is trending downward.” Vince grinned and winked.

“Okay, so it’s not about the health or the cholesterol… it must be… wait, did you strike out with a chick?”

“Keep it down!” Vince hissed. “But, yes, last week at the gym… This girl gave me the ‘you’re old and flabby’ brushoff.”

Morgan eyed Vince’s trim frame with disbelief. “And who did she leave with?”

“Oh, it was two girls that came in together, and they pretty much blew off all the guys in the gym. They left together, too.”

The waitress brought their food and sat it down in front of them. Vince eyed Morgan’s burger with jealousy, and stared at his salad dubiously. With a sigh, he picked up his fork and began poking at the leafy greens.

“So you’re not the only guy they turned down?” Morgan asked through a mouthful of greasy burger.

“Well, no, but the rest of the guys there really were old and flabby. And I put on some of my best moves, used my best lines. I must be losing it…”

“It didn’t occur to you that they just weren’t… well, interested in picking up a guy?”

“Who could not be interested in this?” Vince asked, waving a hand up and down in front of him.

Morgan fought down a chuckle. Vince had always been a little vain, but this was extreme, even for him. Morgan was astonished that Vince hadn’t immediately seen a perfectly valid reason the woman hadn’t been interested. He toyed with the idea of enlightening him, but was enjoying the look of disgust on Vince’s face as he picked at his salad too much. Maybe, if it didn’t dawn on him…

“Did you see that?” Vince exclaimed, all ready halfway out of his seat and heading for the door.

“See what?”

“You take care of the bill,” Vince yelled back over his shoulder, “I just saw our Sarah walk by!”

Vince dashed out of the restaurant and into the semi-crowded street. He spotted her half a block down, just turning the corner into an alley. He rushed after her, weaving in and out of pedestrians. As he turned into the alley he caught a glimpse of her turning left into another alley.

This time, though, the alley was clear and sprinting down it he gained on her. When he turned into the second alley she was only a hundred yards away. She must have heard him crashing down the alley, though, because as soon as he turned the corner she looked back and saw him. She gave a startled jump and turned and sprinted away.

Vince was much faster, though, and caught up with her in seconds. He grasped her by the arm, spun her around and shoved her up against the brick wall. Using his body he pinned her there, still panting from the exertion.

“A little out of shape there, eh?” she said snidely.

“Caught you, didn’t I?” he asked, his breathing returning to normal.

She looked away and gave a little shrug. “What are you going to do with me now?”

“Obviously,” he said, reaching around his back and pulling out a set of handcuffs, “I’m going to arrest you.”

“I don’t think you should do that,” she said softly. Her body, which she had been holding stiffly as far away from his as possible, suddenly relaxed. She leaned into him and placed her hands on his chest, stroking lightly. Her face tilted up towards his, leaning slightly.

“Of course you don’t,” he said dryly

“For more reasons than the obvious.”

“Enlighten me,” he said, grabbing her hands and stopping the lazy stroking of his chest.

“I have… information.”

“Information you can give us at the station.”

“But I won’t.” She leaned in even further, her lips inches from his.

“Are you trying to seduce me?” he asked incredulously.

She frowned and abruptly pulled back. “No.”
“Oh, c’mon, you were,” he said with a wolfish grin. “It wasn’t that bad of a job, really. I’ll give you a B for effort.”

“Why thank you so very, very much for that,” she replied crossly.

“No, seriously, you almost had it. Probably would’ve worked on a lesser man.”

“There are lesser men?”

He chuckled. “Oh, you wound me! Seriously, it was the eyes that held you back.”

“Are we really having this conversation?”

“Do you want to learn or not?”

“What makes you think you’re qualified to teach?” she snapped.

He didn’t reply, but she felt his body shift against hers. One of his thighs slid between hers and pressed her further up the wall. His hands, which had been loosely gripping her arms, moved slowly, caressingly. One traveled up across her shoulder and around to the back of her neck. The other slipped down to her waist and around to the small of her back. He leaned his head down and stopped with his lips a scant half inch from hers. His arms tightened slightly, bringing her entire body hard up against his. He held her there for a moment, staring into her eyes. Then he nuzzled her cheek, his lips moving to nibble on her ear. He whispered into her ear, “I don’t even know your name…”

“Alexandra,” she replied, her eyes half closed and her breathing coming faster. His hands were moving slightly, caressing, pulling, stroking.

“Alex,” he groaned in her ear. Then his lips found hers and he was kissing her passionately. Her body went limp. “Alex,” he said again between kisses, “what’s your last name?”

“Carli…” she started, but stopped suddenly. She shoved at his chest. He lifted his head and looked at her, all hint of passion gone. He gave her a half-mocking smile, his eyes cold and remote.

“Is this a new and improved interrogation technique?” she asked, trying to regain her composure. She was sure he could feel her trembling, but she wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of admitting how much he had gotten to her.

“Whatever works.”

“Seems to have worked on you, too,” she said crossly, glancing down.

“Ah, well, you’re a pretty girl. I’m a guy. Doesn’t take much.”

“You…” she broke off, fighting back tears. She took a deep, steadying breath. She was supposed to be a professional. She could handle this. Anger. Anger and logic were the keys.

“Look,” she said as calmly as she could manage, “I still have some things I need to do. Information I need to gather. People to meet. I can get you a lot more information if you let me go.”

“And you’ll just waltz in and turn over that information when you’re done?” he asked sardonically.

“Don’t be silly. Of course I have no intention of turning myself in,” she snorted. “Who on earth would? But I wouldn’t be digging up all this information if I wasn’t going to turn it over to the police. Anonymously.”

“How much information are we talking about?”

“We all know this isn’t just a simple murder case, right?” He nodded. “You did follow up on the suspiciously large returns on investments not reflected in the files, right?” He nodded again. “I’m following the money, of course. If I can find out where it came from… I’ve narrowed it down to two possibilities: drugs – of course – and stolen artwork. Maybe even a combination of the two.”

“And how are you tracking it down?”

“All the bad guys are always on the lookout for other bad guys, right? I’m still posing as Sarah – and James’s contacts are ‘protecting’ me, hoping the ‘other’ bad guys that got him will come after me, and they can get revenge. In the meantime, I pick up a snippet here, a snippet there. They even have me running some errands for them – delivering messages and the like.”

“So they trust you?”

“Not really. They’re coded messages, of course. And they keep a pretty close eye on me.”

“Are they watching now?”

She shook her head. “They let me deliver the messages alone, otherwise, what’s the point of a messenger? And, like, I said, they’re in code anyway.”

“But what are they going to do when they find out you’re the one who killed St. Irving?”

She looked him straight in the eye. “But of course I didn’t. I have a feeling it’s just going to be another sad case of an unsolved homicide.”

He knew she was lying, but there was nothing to back it up. Just a gut feeling. Her expressions and mannerisms were those of a person telling the complete and utter truth.

“Okay, say you didn’t. Who did?”

She shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine.”

“Okay, Alex, you want me to let you go, you’re going to have to give me something more to work with. Tell me something I don’t know.”

She paused, chewing on her lip. “I haven’t been able to track down the source of the money, but I have four names. If I give you these names I want you to promise you’ll start some very discrete inquires, but not act on them until I get in touch with you. If you do anything, the whole case will fall apart.”

“Okay, we won’t act on them for a week. If you don’t get in touch with my by then, though…”

“Fair enough. The names – and I don’t know if they’re first or last names, or, more likely, code names – are: Doyle, Melville, Austen, and Wells.”

“And you have no idea what they mean?”

“No,” she shook her head, “I’m pretty sure they’re code names. Or, code something.” She looked uncertain. “Whatever they are, they have a very strong connection to St. Irving. They’ve been very upset about the idea that ‘sensitive information’ has been lost. So, I don’t know, maybe he was their contact? That just doesn’t seem right, though.”

Vince thought for a moment. “Wait…” he said suddenly.

“What?”

“I think I know where to start looking. What else do you know?”

“Where are you going to start looking?”

“What else do you know?” he asked again, looking pointedly at her, then the handcuffs.

“Fine,” she huffed. “I know that something big is planned for the end of March. Some big shipment. But I haven’t gotten the details – yet.”

“And if I let you go, you can?”

“Yes.”

He stepped back from her. “One more thing,” he said as she started down the alley. “What happened to Sarah?”

“You mean you don’t know?” She grinned at him. “No worries, she’s fine. She and James’s lawyer got hitched and are on their honeymoon.”

“But I thought he recommended her to St. Irving. Why one earth would he do that if he was planning on marrying her?”

“Well, it was … rather a shotgun wedding.” She grinned at him. “But not in the way you think.”

“So…?” he prompted.

Alex sighed and glanced around, impatient. “He was in trouble with the IRS – garden variety tax evasion. Sarah has dual citizenship – her mother was Brazilian – and she was… convenient. I doubt he’ll ever be back.” And with that, she was off.

Vince stood for a moment, then, shoving the handcuffs back into their holder, walked out of the alley and went to find Morgan.

As Vince ambled back to the mouth of the alley, he started to wonder how he was going to explain this to Morgan. Morgan, the straight-laced tightrope-walking man that he had become, would never understand what he had just done. But Vince was a guy who trusted his intuition, and he was never wrong. Okay, he amended to himself, rarely wrong.

He stopped at the entrance to the alley and thought. Casting his eyes about they lit on a scrap of paper skittering across the pavement. He snatched it up and studied it. It was a clean yellow slip from the public library, listing…

His eyes zeroed in on the third book that had been checked out. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Austen. He flipped open his cell phone and called the lab.

“Crime Lab, Jameson speaking,” a crisp voice answered.

“Chris, this is Vince. I need you to do me a favor. You have a list of those books from St. Irving’s study?”

“You mean the ones poor Miles and Crenshaw spent hours pouring over?”

“Yeah,” Vince gave a muffled laugh. “Those.”

“It wasn’t funny, sir, Crenshaw suffered a serious paper cut. If it wasn’t for Janice’s quick thinking and a Strawberry Shortcake band-aid…” he paused ominously, “he might not be with us today.”

“Sorry, Chris, I had no idea. Perhaps he should put in for hazard pay?” Vince chuckled.

“Ah, well, these things happen. So, what did you want to know?”

Vince paused a moment, so caught up in the near-death of poor Crenshaw that he momentarily forgot. “Oh, the book list. Tell me if there are any books by the following authors: Austen, Doyle, Melville, or Wells.”

“Just a minute…” Vince could here Chris tapping away on the keyboard in the background. “Ah, yes, one each: Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen, The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Moby Dick by Hermann Melville, and The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells.”

“Anything unusual noted about those books?”

“There were abnormalities in all the books, to be honest. Scribbling in the margins, words highlighted, pages torn out… you name it. Our best guess is that there’s some good info in there, but with two wall-to-wall bookshelves with 400 books per bookshelf that average 400 pages apiece… The words needle in a haystack some to mind.”

“Matches and magnets, Chris. Thanks,” Vince said, and hung up.

Glancing up and gown the street and seeing no sign of Morgan, he dashed across to the library. Racing up and down the aisles he quickly grabbed a copy of each of the four books and headed to the checkout counter. He checked out the books, took the receipt and tore off the top portion that showed his library card information. Dumping the books back in the return bin, he cautiously exited the library, keeping an eye out for Morgan.

Walking down the street back towards the pub, he didn’t see any sign of him. As he reached the car, still parked at the curb, his stomach rumbled and reminded him that he still hadn’t eaten. He turned and headed back into the restaurant to grab a quick bite before he called Morgan.

“What took you so long, and where is she?” a voice called out as he entered the tavern.

Vince glanced around and saw that Morgan was still sitting at the little table in the back, finishing up… was that a slice of cake? His pathetic, wilted, green salad still sat at his place, waiting for him. He sat back down and poked at the awful stuff with his fork a little before sighing and signaling to the waitress.

“They were gay, weren’t they?” he said to Morgan, pushing the salad away. The waitress bounced over and eyed Vince. “You still think I’m good looking, right?”

She grinned and winked at him, “Of course, and not just because the size of my tip might be riding on it.”

“So, it’s all a lie and size does matter?”

“Of course. What can I get you, besides a bit of ego-stroking?”

“Well you could stroke…” Vince started, but Morgan cut him off.

“I think my friend – and I use that term loosely – would like a different meal. Something less… vegetable-y.”

“Yes,” Vince glared at him, “I would like a big, juicy burger with cheese and everything, cooked medium well, and a plate of seasoned fries, please.”

“Coming right up,” she said, and bounced off.

“And, yes,” Morgan said, “those girls probably were.”

“And you weren’t going to point out this obvious fact and were going to let me eat,” Vince shuddered visibly, “salad?! What kind of a friend are you?”

“The kind that loves to laugh at your expense. Is there another kind?” Morgan raised an eyebrow, and Vince squirmed slightly, thinking of all the pranks and jokes he’d pulled on Morgan over the years.

“Touché.”

“So what, may I ask, prompted your BGO?” Morgan asked as the waitress came back with Vince’s plate.

“My what?” Vince asked through a mouthful of fries.

“BGO. Blinding Glimpse of the Obvious. About the girls.”

Vince thought back to Alex’s body pressed between his and the wall, and the way she had responded to him. Despite being a police officer and despite the fact that he was threatening to arrest her, she had melted into him. He suppressed a grin. Damn, he was good. But he just shook his head at Morgan.

“I dunno. Just came to me.”

“Mmm-Hmmm, sure.” Morgan glared at him suspiciously. “So what happened with Sarah?”

"Alex." Vince said smuggly.

"What?"

"Her name is Alexandra - Alex for short."

"So, what happened?" Morgan pressed.


“Who? Oh! Her. Lost her,” Vince mumbled, his mouth full of burger.

“You what? That slip of a girl outran you?”

“Not precisely.” Vince paused to carefully construct his lie. “It was like this. She turned down an alley and there was a car waiting for her. She was climbing into the backseat when I caught up to her, and I heard the driver say her name. She had something in her hand, and I grabbed for it – because her hand was on the doorframe, and I got it, but she climbed into the car and it sped away.”

“Right. And you also have some oceanfront property in Arizona for me?” Morgan looked skeptical.

“Here,” Vince thrust the now crumpled library slip at Morgan. “I already called the lab and St. James had all four of these books on his shelves.”

“And did they have anything interesting written in them?”

“Sadly, all the books had something interesting in them. But now that we know where to concentrate, maybe we can get somewhere.”

“Maybe you can get somewhere, later. We still have to go to the dentist with our warrant. You done?” Morgan pushed back his chair.

“Yeah,” Vince said, “but can’t you go to the dentist without me? I really want to get started on the books.”

“Sure, but weren’t you the one all gung-ho to find out the real identity of our Sarah?” Morgan stared at him quizzically.

“Well, yeah, sure, but you’ll call me, right?” Vince hedged. “You know me, I have the attention span of a gnat. Now I have a new problem to solve.”

“Fine,” Morgan said slowly, still looking closely at Vince. “You go do that.”

“Okay, I’ll get a cab, don’t worry.” He jumped up and threw some money on the table.

“Vince,” Morgan said slowly, “I hope you’re right. And I hope she’s worth it.”

Vince looked at his old friend for a long moment, nodded, and left the pub.

Morgan watched Vince walk out of the pub, and gestured to the waitress for the check. He tipped her generously, and walked back out to this car. He thought about skipping the return visit to the dentist’s office, figuring that Vince had already obtained more information than he could, but since they had gone through the trouble of getting the warrant he headed in that direction.

Melissa met him in the reception area of the office and quickly pulled him back into a private consulting area.

“I assume you got the warrant, otherwise you wouldn’t be back here,” she said dryly.

“And you would be correct.” He pulled the signed warrant out and showed it to her. She gave it a perfunctory glance and nodded.

“Okay, let me start by giving you the back story. We don’t normally bother to note serial numbers on bridges, despite what the conspiracy theory ‘the government is tracking you’ wackos want you to believe. But last year there was a big stink about the adhesive. Seems that last year at the big dental convention – yes, they have them too – the numbers of the different types of procedures was skewed. Usually it’s very predictable, with the greatest number being the annual cleanings, followed by visits for cavities and teeth whitening, up to root canals, crowns, and bridges, and so on. It’s pretty standard, so when they notices a huge – and I mean quadruple the number of usual – leap in crown and bridge re-adhesions they started asking themselves, ‘Is there something wrong with the adhesive?’ So they launched a study. For every crown or bridge we re-attached, we were to note the serial number so it could be tracked back to the original dentist, and they would have on record what kind of adhesive was used. Then we informed the committee, and they did the research and maintained the database.”

“No need to be so defensive,” Morgan grinned at her and shook his head. “I don’t care why you wrote it down – you could have a fetish for numbers, for all I care. I’m just glad you did.”

“Well, you know,” she paused, looking at the ground, “you just get so many people who think the world – and everybody in it – is out to get them. Dentists are already hated enough.”

“Listen, it’s not like I’m going to make this public knowledge. It may not even be needed in the case. It’s just one more lead I have to track down.” He smiled gently at her and she relaxed.

“I’m sorry, it’s just that…” she broke off with a sob. “I found this at lunch. I went home to eat and... this was stuck to the door. The… the door to my apartment.” She held out a piece of white typing paper with one short paragraph scrawled on it.

Melissa:

You think you know it all, don’t you? But some knowledge is best kept to yourself. If I catch you spying on me – and, yes, that’s what it is, make no mistake about it – for the government again, I will cut your throat. This is your last warning.


The note was unsigned. Morgan looked closely at it, and realized that what he has first thought was handwriting was actually a computer font that simulated handwriting.

“Has anyone else touched this?” he asked.

“No, not that I know of. Other than the person who put it on my door.”

“Do you have something I can put it in? Something to protect it until I get it back to the lab?”

She set the letter down on the table and walked into the next room. She returned with a large x-ray folder. “Will this do?”

“Perfect. If you could just slip it in there for me. And we’ll need a sample of your fingerprints for comparison.”

“When?” she looked around uncertainly.

“Whenever you have time, but preferably sooner rather than later. Can you come down to the station tomorrow?”

“I’ll try.” She smiled weakly. “But that’s not what you’re here to talk about. I didn’t mean to burden you with my problems.”

“Nonsense – I’m a police officer, it’s my job. And this could be serious.”

“I hope not. I’m hoping it’s a crackpot who’s actually harmless. At least that’s what I’m telling myself. But on to Sarah. Here’s the file we have on her,” she slid a manila folder across the table at him, “and she did list her name as Sarah James. But when I ran the serial number on the bridge, it came up as one Mandy Thompson in Columbus, Ohio. I called and had the original dentist fax over that part of the file. Evidently she wasn’t a patient for long, just long enough for one cleaning, the extraction, and the bridge. Insurance from her employer paid for most of it.”

Morgan stared at the page, his eyes drifting to the insurance section. Jackson and Browne Galleries and Studio was listed as the employer. That name sounded familiar, but he couldn't place it. He smiled at Melissa, thanked her, and went in search of Vince. They had a lot to talk about.

Vince wandered out of the restaurant, flagged down a cab and headed for the lab. In 15 minutes he was standing in the doorway of the lab, barking at the techs.

“I want Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen, The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Moby Dick by Hermann Melville, and The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells on my desk, now,” he snapped, striding towards the cramped closet he graciously called an office.

“Um, which ones, sir?” a tremulous voice asked. Vince paused and looked down at the small, bald-headed, spectacled man standing a few feet away. He wracked his brain. Harold? Henry? Harvey? He could never remember that man’s name.

“What do you mean?” he asked, neatly sidestepping the name issue.

“Well, do you want the books from the North wall, or the books from the South wall? We’ve tagged each with a Post-It note – don’t worry, they’d already all been thoroughly processed for prints fibers, etc. – to denote which ones were found where. There are a lot of ancient cultures that attach a lot of significance to the compass points, and many cults like to pull traditions from ancient sources. Makes them feel intellectual, I guess. So we made sure to note it before we organized them by author and title. So they’d be easy to find later, you see. Of course, there’s also a cross reference to where they were found on the shelf, because it might be important what order they were in. You never know what might be important, as far as order an organization are concerned. There’s a lot to be learned, psychologically, about a criminal based on his housekeeping habits, you know. There was recently…”

“Both sets,” Vince cut in. He had forgotten how Harold/Henry/Harvey could get on a roll. The man was an endless fount of information, unfortunately, he never knew when to shut up.

“Right away,” he said, not at all insulted about having his lecture cut short. He scampered to the store room and returned moments later with the volumes. Vince thanked him quickly and retreated to his office before he had to hear any more about the psychology of criminals. As he closed the door he heard, “Yes, really, they say if you keep your CDs in alphabetical order…”

Vince sat down at his desk and pushed the papers littering the surface to the edge, creating a clear spot in the center. He placed the pile of books there and picked up the top one, flipping aimlessly through it. Chris was right – there was so much information it was like looking for a needle in a haystack. He sighed and leaned back, closing his eyes. Needle in a haystack. If only it were that simple – he could just set the haystack on fire, and sift the ashes for the needle. The difference was that the needle was different from the hay. All the scribbling in the books was the same.

Vince suddenly opened his eyes. Was it? There were two identical copies of each book; so they assumed. He placed the two copies of Moby Dick side by side on the desk and started flipping through them, page by page. On page 15 he saw it. In the book labeled “North” there was an extra note in the margin. Vince carefully jotted down the book designation, the page number, and the note in a fresh notebook. Then he kept flipping.

Four hours later he had a notebook full of jumbled notes that meant nothing to him. There were numbers, phrases, locations, and names, but there was no discernable pattern or clear message. He tapped the pen on the notebook. He might not be able to see it, but Chris probably could. He glanced at his watch. It was 6 pm, and Chris would be long gone. The lab would be deserted. He stretched, and in a rare moment of paranoia shoved the notebook deep in a drawer full of old case files. He picked up the books and stepped out into the lab.

“Find anything?” Harold/Henry/Harvey said, causing Vince to jump. Suddenly, he felt extremely uneasy around the small man.

“No, nothing,” he lied smoothly.

“What made you want these books, if I may ask?”

“Honestly, it was a stretch. There were some names scribbled in a notebook on St. Irving’s desk, and I thought they might correspond to the authors. But there’s nothing earth-shattering in these books. I read through them, one by one,” was it his imagination, or was that relief that flashed in those eyes? “…and I didn’t see anything that leapt out at me. I figure I can have the code boys take a look at them tomorrow. What are you doing here so late?”

“Messed up a few prints, thought I‘d take the time now to fix them.” To Vince it sounded like a bad lie, but he forced a jovial smile to his face.

“Very good. Could you set these on Chris’s desk for me? He can get started first thing in the morning.” He handed over the books and walked out of the lab.

Passing the security desk on the way out, he stopped to talk to the guard. “Could you do me a favor?”

“Sure, what do you need?” Melvin, the night guard, was a trusted friend of Vince’s and a frequent fourth at his weekly poker games.

“I need you to keep an eye on… Harold? The small bald guy with glasses. Or is it Henry? Harvey?” Vince grimaced.

“Hank?” Melvin smiled. “He’s been here three months and you still can’t remember his name!”

“That’s because he doesn’t look like a Hank,” Vince grumbled.

“But, yes, I can keep an eye on him. What do you want to know?”

“Just when he leaves. I want to know how long he stays up there.”

“No problem. And, hey, Morgan’s been looking for you. He stopped by, said he couldn’t reach you on your cell phone. I said you might be in your office, but he got a phone call and ran off.”

“Was he smiling during the call?”

“Like a Cheshire cat. What’s up with that? Girl?”

“Oh, yeah.” Vince grinned. Then he frowned and reached into his pocket. His cell phone battery was dead. “Shit,” he groaned.

Melvin looked surprised. “Dude, you let your cell phone die? That’s so unlike you.”

“Yeah, well, I have a lot on my mind. Just keep an eye on… Hank for me, okay?”

“You got it.”

Vince ambled out of the building and went in search of his car.

Morgan tried to call Vince to tell him about the dead end at the dentist’s office. He had no doubt that the name given to the other dentist for the bridge was a false identity. If Vince said her name was Alex, then her name was Alex. It was a gift he had, extracting information in the most bizarre ways. Morgan grinned as he thought of a few ways Vince would undoubtedly try to get information out of the luscious Alex.

So he phoned Clark to tell her about the visit to the dentist’s office as he was driving over to Vince’s house. She answered on the fourth ring, slightly breathless.

“Hello?”

“Hey, it’s me, uh, Morgan, you know…” he trailed off, feeling like an inept schoolboy calling a girl for the first time. Inexplicably he felt his face redden.

“Yes, Morgan, I remember you,” she said, and he could hear the smile in her voice. His face grew even warmer.

“Listen, I was just going to tell Vince, but I can’t get a hold of him, and I like to bounce things off people in case I missed something, so… do you have a minute?”

“Just a minute.” He heard her set the phone down, and there was faint murmuring in the background. He wondered if she was on a date, and his stomach lurched. Not only was he being a babbling idiot, he was interrupting her private life.

“Still there?” her voice came back over the line, sounding bright.

“Yeah, yeah.” He pulled up in front of Vince’s house and stepped out of the car. “Well, according to Vince – and don’t ask me how he knows, but he does – our mystery lady’s name is Alex. According to dental records, she is one Mandy Thompson of Jackson and Browne Galleries and Studio in Columbus, OH.. I’m inclinded to believe what Vince found. I’m assuming the other name was another alias, so that’s a dead end.”

“Why would she use an alias?”

“So she couldn’t be tracked, obviously,” Morgan said, but he frowned. He pounded on Vince’s door, and rang the doorbell a few times for good measure.

“Seriously, though, who thinks about that when they’re having dental work done? I’m going into the dental office thinking, ‘oh, I need to get this bridge done, but what if it falls off during a time when I’m posing as someone else to bring down a crime ring, and the dentist notes the number? I better make up a name just in case.’ I mean, she had it done how long ago?”

“Well, it was only a year ago…”

“Still, do you see how absurd that sounds?”

“Well, yes, I do, but… I still can’t believe Vince got bad info.” Morgan gritted his teeth, pounding on the front door one last time. “And speaking of, do you know where he is? He’s not home and not answering his cell phone.”

“He probably went back to the lab – that’s where I left his car. He’d know that, and at least go there to collect it. And, if he had a lead, he’d probably stop in to do some work.”

“Good point,” Morgan said, getting back into his car and heading for the lab. “But back to our mystery lady. I don’t believe Vince is wrong, so strange as it must sound, she used an alias when she got that bridge done.”

“Oh, I believe Vince, too. I know his methods of extracting information are… unusual. But very, very, effective.” Her voice sounded gentle and seductive as she said it, and again Morgan found himself wondering about the nature of their relationship. His hands grasped the steering wheel so tightly his knuckles turned white.

“Oh, really?” he said peevishly.

“Really,” she laughed. “Your curiosity is just killing you, isn’t it? No, I’m not interested in Vince in that way, and for all his outrageous flirting, he’s not into me, either. Just to, you know, put your mind at ease.”

“It’s none of my business.”

“But you want it to be. And I want you to want it to be,” she said very softly. He felt his heart speed up. He cleared his throat.

“But this is a matter for another time,” she said suddenly. “I don’t want to forget my train of thought. Now, I said that I do believe Vince, which leaves us with the fact that our mystery lady did use and alias the first time around. And not, I suspect, as a precaution to conceal her identity later. But because that’s who she was then. That dental problem, like this one, just happened at an inopportune time – when she was pretending to be someone else. Didn’t you say she was employed at a gallery?”

“Yeah, Jackson and Browne Galleries and Studio.”

“So, have you looked into it? There’s some theory that all of this business revolves around art, right?” Clark said in a tone that was gently chiding. Morgan felt stupid. How could he have overlooked that? He sighed heavily.

“Yeah, you’re right. That would mean she’s been at this for quite some time, doesn’t it?”

“And that the operation is bigger than we suspected.”

Morgan thought back to the conversation he and Vince had had about why he was on the case. At least one person had guessed that this was more than it appeared.

“Oh,” she said suddenly. “I have another call. Can I call you back?”

“Sure,” he said, and hung up the phone. His tried to focus his mind on the case, but his thoughts kept drifting back to Clark. They hadn’t even gone on a date yet, and he was already… no, not falling in love, surely. Those sorts of things just didn’t happen. Lust, perhaps. Whatever it was, he had to find some way to deal with it so he could focus on the case.

He pulled up in front of the lab and got out of his car. Looking towards the lot, he thought he could see Vince’s car under a streetlamp. He went into the building stopped at the security desk.

“Hey, Melvin. Vince here?”

The security guard blinked up at him. “Hey Morgan. I don’t know, I haven’t seen him. But I only signed on,” he checked his watch, “half an hour ago. Want me to call up?”

Morgan’s phone rang, and he flipped it open. Seeing Clark’s number on the screen, he answered.

“Hello. Yeah? Really… okay, sure.” He smiled at Melvin. “Just tell him I stopped by. I’ll get in touch with him later. I have to… go somewhere.”

“Sure thing.” Melvin grinned back at him as he bounded off towards his car.

Morgan pulled up outside of Clark’s house and sat for a moment, taking deep breaths and trying to calm himself. He hadn’t felt this nervous since junior high, when he had first asked Sally Jenkins out. He grinned wryly to himself. After that debacle, nothing worse could possibly go wrong.

He walked up to the front door, wiping his slightly sweaty palms on his slacks. She must have been waiting for him, because she opened the door before he could even raise his hand to knock.

“There you are!” she exclaimed, grabbing him by the upper arm and tugging him into the house. “I was just about to call you and see what was taking so long.”

“Well, I was all the way across town…” he trailed off as she shot him a venomous glare.

“Excuses, excuses. Well, at least it gave me time to clear out all of the naked man-slaves I usually keep about.”

“Look,” he said earnestly, “it did sound like you had company. I really didn’t mean to interrupt…”

“No, no, no, it’s fine – really. You have no idea how fine it was. Really. Seriously. I should be thanking you for getting me out of that horrid, horrid, horrid evening.” At his perplexed look, she went on, “My mother set me up on a date with a friend’s nephew’s cousin’s roommate’s mother’s son’s best friend. Or something like that. A complete stuffed shirt. I was suffocating in the half-hour I had to spend with him. I could kiss you for getting me out of it.”

“Okay,” he said, and stood there staring at her.

“Well, we should…” she had turned to walk into the living room, but stopped when she realized he wasn’t following her. “What are you waiting for?”

“The kiss.”

“The..?” She frowned.

“The one I get for saving you from a dreadfully dull evening.”

“Oh! I, uh, it was just a figure of speech…” she trailed off lamely, her cheeks flushing.

“No, it wasn’t. It was a simple, declarative sentence.” He shifted slightly, but made no move to follow her.

She chewed on her lower lip for a moment, and then her face brightened. “Ah, but what I said was that I could kiss you – not that I would kiss you. And I still could, but… not now.” And with that she turned on her heel and marched into the living room.

“So close…” he muttered as he trudged after her. He found her sitting at a small desk in front of a laptop computer. He pulled up an extra chair from the dinning room and sat down next to her. “So, what was this information you were so excited about?”

“Look at what I found,” she pointed to the screen. “That studio – Jackson and Browne – was implicated in a scandal right around the time “Mandy” was working there. Evidently, someone tipped off local police to the fact that the studio was really a front for some drug traffickers. Now, they did make some arrests, but the detectives in charge were positive that there was more to the operation then what they uncovered. But none of the people they caught would flip on any of the higher-ups. So the investigation was closed.”

Morgan peered at the screen, reading the official report on the case. “There’s no mention of a Mandy in the report. Are you sure she was still working there at the time? This was a month after the dental visit.”

“I did have quite a bit of time to read through the case file as you were driving over, and there were a few mentions of her. I get the impression the officers thought she was inconsequential, to be honest. She was working as a receptionist, basically, and though she would have had access to quite a bit of information…” she hesitated.

“They thought she was too stupid to make heads or tails of it?”

“Yeah. She’s actually described as a ‘hot ditzy blonde’ in an e-mail that, uh, made its way into one of the reports. How professional is that?” She sighed and rolled her eyes.

“Mental note: I need to make sure my personal notes on you don’t get into this case file,” he grinned at her. “I wouldn’t want you thinking I’m… unprofessional.”

“Too late.”

“Sweetheart, I’ve been the model of professionalism since the moment we met.”

“One, a ‘professional’ officer wouldn’t call me ‘sweetheart.’ Two, you’ve spent a good deal of the time we’ve known each other badgering me to go out on a date with you. And you’ve almost kissed me … at least twice.” She got up and headed for the kitchen. “Would you like a cup of coffee?”

He stood up and grabbed her hand, pulling her back to him. “You’re right, it was terribly unprofessional for me to ‘almost’ kiss you.” And he leaned down and softly kissed her.

She sighed against his lips, and wrapped her arms around his neck. He deepened the kiss, pulling her body hard against his.

At that instant, the doorbell rang. They both froze like two teenagers caught making out in the basement, and Clark laughed self-consciously. “I’d better go see who that is.”

“Wait,” he pulled her back and headed for the door, “I’ll get it.”

He strode to the front door and looked out the peephole. Vince stood there on the doorstep, hopping slightly from foot to foot. Morgan sighed, raked a hand through his hair and opened the door.

“Out of the way, out of the way,” Vince yelled as he barreled past Morgan and down the hallway. Morgan closed and locked the front door and went into the kitchen where Clark was preparing a fresh pot of coffee.

“Was that Vince I heard?”

“Yup. He went running down the hallway before I could even ask him what he was doing here.”

“There’s a Binko’s between the office and here,” she said by way of explanation.

“I’m sorry?”

“You’ve never been to a Bnko’s?”

“No, what’s a Binko’s?”

“It’s a small gas station chain, famous for their 62-oz fountain drink mixes.” As if on cue, they heard a toilet flush. A moment later, Vince came strolling in to the kitchen.

“Is that fresh coffee I smell?”

“How can you even be thirsty?” Morgan asked, amazed.

Vince shrugged, accepting the mug of coffee Clark handed to him.

“So, what did you learn today?” she asked.

He filled them in on the books, and how he had noted all of the differences he could find. “I’m going to have Chris look through them with fresh eyes in the morning, and then we can compare notes. There’s something there, I just can’t make heads or tails of it. What about you guys?”

Morgan told them about the visit to the dentist, including the part about the note Melissa had found on her door at lunch.

“Do you think that’s connected?” Clark asked.

“I honestly don’t know. I have it in my car, I was going to drop it off at the lab, but I… forgot. I doubt there are any fingerprints on it if it is connected, but if it’s not, maybe we can find the person responsible.”

“It seems way too… convenient, don’t you think?” Vince asked.

“Yes, it does. But what else can I do but follow through on it?” Morgan shrugged.

“It may end up being nothing, but you’re right, you do have to follow up on it. Now, what were you two kids doing tonight?” Vince grinned.

Clark flushed slightly, but filled him in on the research they’d done on the gallery in Ohio. Vince nodded, then yawned.

“Well, we have an awful lot to work on,” he said, getting up and stretching. “We should get some shut-eye. Morgan, want to give me that letter on the way out? I can get it started on processing first thing in the morning.” He stared pointedly at Morgan.

Morgan glanced briefly at Clark, but her eyes were focused firmly on the tile floor. He nodded, and rose to leave. Clark saw them to the door, and as he stepped out, she said softly, “Saturday, 8 o’clock. Don’t forget if I don’t see you before then.”

“I’ll be here,” he smiled, and followed Vince out to his car. He opened up the door and grabbed the envelope, and turned and handed it to Vince.

“Did I disturb something this evening?” Vince asked mildly.

“Perhaps,” Morgan replied.

Vince started at him stonily for a heartbeat and said, “Good.” Then he walked to his car and drove away.

Morgan watched him drive off, perplexed by Vince’s behavior. He’d always been a little odd, but this… He shook his head, got into his car and drove home.

Vince stumbled into the office at nine the next morning, bleary-eyed and grouchy. He’d gotten very little sleep the night before, and blamed it all on Morgan. He barely nodded at the guard on duty, and failed to notice that she was trying to flag him down.

“VINCE TORTOLA!” she screamed, and he finally stopped.

“Yes?” he asked as he walked back to the desk. Then he noticed she had a folded slip of white paper clutched in her hand. She waved it at him.

“I’ve been trying to give you your message.” She thrust the paper at him and sat back down with a sigh. “You look like hell.”

“Feel like it, too, but thanks for noticing.” He gave her a wan smile and stuck the paper in his pocket as he went up to the lab.

“Morning, sir,” Chris said as he opened the door to the lab.

Vince glared at him sullenly. “My, my, aren’t we chipper this morning?”

Chris grinned at him. “Someone got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning!”

“I need coffee.”

Chris was silent as Vince went over to the ancient coffee pot and poured himself a cup of what the office staff affectionately called “The Sludge.” It was thick and slightly gritty, but it packed a punch. And that’s all the caffeine addicts cared about, so they never bothered to replace it. Vince knocked back a cup and poured himself a second before walking over to Chris’s desk.

Chris took a sip of his Non-Fat-Half-Caf-Mocha-Latte from The Coffee Conglomerate. “I fail to see how you can drink that crap.”

“And I fail to see how you can pay nine dollars for that crap.” Vince rolled his eyes. It was a long-standing argument in the office between the coffee purists and the coffee connoisseurs. Chris just sniffed at him and opened one of the books on his desk.

“Hank left me a note that there might be something interesting in these books, and while I’ve only been at it a few hours,” he glanced pointedly at the clock, “I honestly don’t see anything.”

“Are you comparing the books side-by-side?”

“Yes, but all of the added text is identical. There aren’t any differences. There’s another thing though, I was going to ask Hank about it, but…” Chris frowned.

“He’s not here.” It was a statement, not a question.

“Nope. Haven’t seen him all morning. See, the books from the North wall all have their ‘secret’ identifiers, but the South books are missing it. I don’t know if it was a lab screw-up, or what…”

“Secret identifiers?” Vince asked, looking confused.

“Right, you weren’t around for that. I keep forgetting you haven’t always been here. Anyway, years ago someone did an evidence swap – we still don’t know how – so ever since then the person logging the evidence puts a special, secret mark on it. They don’t tell anyone what or where it is, but if they’re ever called upon to validate the evidence, they have that to fall back on. The first thing I did this morning, before starting the research, was ask Miles and Crenshaw to validate the books. They told me that they could only validate the ones from the North bookcase.”

“Why in the hell didn’t I know about this?” Vince growled. “I thought I was brought up-to-speed on everything by Jackson when I took over this bloody lab!”

“Ah, well, see… that’s a bit of a sticky wicket,” Chris hedged. “You see, it was widely believed – and not just by office staff here, but by people outside the department – that it was Jackson who’d done it. There were rumors… that’s actually why he left. It’s not widely known that he was very pointedly asked to retire. So us lowly lab techs adopted this policy to protect ourselves.”

“From me?”

“Not just you – from anyone. From each other. It’s just a way to cover our asses. Nothing personal, sir.”

“No, I can’t possibly see why I might take it that way,” Vince said as he blew out a sigh. “But we can discuss this later. What you’re telling me is the books in this stack that are marked South Wall are not the books that were originally checked in. Do we have any way of knowing when the switch was made?”

“Not unless you have a witness to someone carrying in a bag full of books,” Chris said.

“A witness…” Vince shoved his hand into his pocket and pulled out the sheet of paper. “Oh please oh please oh please…”

He flattened out the paper on the desk. In large, bold letters the message said:

9:16 pm– H leaves
10:27 pm – H returns, carrying full Barnes and Noble bag
4:43 am – H leaves, still carrying Barnes and Noble bag of books

Chris looked up at him. “You have to be shitting me!”

Vince grinned. “Finally, something went right! I’m pretty sure the books I was studying last night were the originals. My notebook!”

He jumped up and ran into his office, rummaging around in the desk until he came up with the notebook he had filled up the night before. Holding it gingerly he brought it out to Chris.

“Yesterday I went though and compared the books, noting all of the differences and what books had which notes. Hopefully I got all the information, because I’m not sure we’ll ever see those originals again. And I’m guessing we’ve seen the last of old Hank, too.” Vince pulled out his cell phone and made a call to the police station, describing the circumstances and asking them to send a unit over to Hank’s residence. “For all the good that will do,” he muttered.

Chris was flipping through the notebook, looking thoughtful. “It seems like there’s almost a pattern. Something I can almost grasp, but not quite. It’s right on the tip of me brain…”

Vince nodded. “I felt the same way. I know there’s something there, but it doesn’t quite make sense. I have to wonder if we’re still missing a piece of the puzzle.”

“Well, I’ll work on it. Let’s go make copies of this, and then you hid the original. I don’t think it’s probable, but either Hank or one of his associates might find out about it and try to nab it.” Chris picked up his coffee cup and headed for the copying area, Vince close behind him.

When the copies had been made, Vince picked up his notebook and left the office, wishing Chris luck on his way out. If anyone could figure it out, he could. But there was still that ‘if.’ Vince wasn’t convinced they had enough information to solve the puzzle – yet.

He decided to walk the few blocks to Morgan’s office, hoping the fresh air would clear his head. He was halfway there when he felt a hand grab his coat and tug him into a side alley. He let himself be pulled slightly off-balance, then wheeled around and shoved his attacker up against the wall.

“Easy, tiger,” Alex grinned up at him.

“What do you think you are doing? I could have killed you!” Vince snapped.

“Highly doubtful,” she said mildly. “You wouldn’t kill anyone without first trying to find out what they wanted with you.”

Vince shrugged and let her go, taking a step back. She was right, but it’d be a cold day in hell before he’d admit it. “Though now that you brought it up, what is it that you want?”

“Did my hint get you anywhere?” She smiled smugly at him.

“Not really,” he said airily, feigning nonchalance.

“Then what’s in the notebook?” she asked, eyeing the notebook he still held in his left hand.

“Oh, it’s where I jot down my erotic fantasies. There’s a good one with you as a dominatrix that I wrote after our first meeting. Wanna hear it?” He lifted an eyebrow at her. She stared back, leveling a challenging look at him.

“Yes, please.”

“I didn’t… what?” He looked startled.

“I said yes, please. I want to know if you wrote me right. There are many types of dominatrix styles, ranging from fairly gentle, but restraining to downright abusive. I’d love to see how you pictured me, and…” she lowered her voice to a purr and looked up at him though half-closed eyed, “how close to right you were.”

Vince smiled down at her, moving closer and touching her cheek with his right hand. She stared placidly up at him, then began to lean into him. Her hands reached for him and suddenly she made a grab for the notebook. He was too fast for her, though, and he jerked it up and held it over her head.

She reached up for it, but even when she jumped a little she could quite grab it. He chuckled at her and she glowered back at him.

“Bastard,” she hissed.

“Aw, and here I was going to offer to make a copy for you,” he said.

“Seriously?” She looked startled. “You were?”

“Yes,” he said earnestly, and was surprised to find that he actually meant it. There was something about her that he liked. Apart from her obvious – he let his eyes roam over her body – attributes, there was something about her he trusted. He knew it was illogical, but he trusted his gut feeling. “Come by my place tonight and I’ll have a copy for you. We can… discuss it.”

“You mean you can have the cops waiting for me.”

“You’ll just have to trust me,” he said, and turned on his heel and went back out to the street. He caught a glimpse of her as he rounded the corner. She was leaning against the side of the building, her arms crossed and a look of frustration creasing her pretty features.

Vince made his way to Morgan’s office, where he was surprised to find that Morgan wasn’t in. He poured himself a cup of coffee and quickly made two more photocopies of the notebook. Then he sat down in a vacant desk to wait for Morgan to show up. He closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair.

Fifteen minutes later Morgan walked into the office to find Vince snoring loudly and the rest of the office is muffling fits of laughter. He grinned and walked over to Paula’s desk.

“How long has he been here?” he asked.

“Only about a quarter of an hour,” she replied in a low voice. “He’s been snoring for the last five minutes, and we have s pool going on how long it will take for the drool to reach his chest.”

Morgan looked more closely at Vince and saw a small streak of drool at the corner of his mouth.

“I guess I can’t ruin everyone’s fun, can I?” he asked morosely. He had things to talk to Vince about, and was anxious to compare notes.

“Well, you can for me. My time’s up in five minutes. He started out strong, but then it just… dried up.” She frowned and pouted prettily.

Morgan grinned at her. “I think I can help you out, but you’ll owe me one.”

“Deal! The pot’s up to a hundred bucks, and I could really use it,” she said. He caught the glimmer of sadness in her eyes. “It was only five bucks. I figured if I lost I’d skip lunch,” she rushed to explain.

He nodded. “Well, let me see what I can do.”

Morgan headed to the little kitchen and opened up the freezer. He found a microwave dinner with Paula’s name scrawled on top of it – spaghetti with meat sauce. Perfect. He popped it in the microwave and three minutes later he had a small, steaming helping of surprisingly good-smelling pasta. He went back to the main room and crept quietly over to Vince. He help the plate of pasta a few inches from Vince’s nose.

Vince snorted and stirred slightly, but didn’t wake up. Paula and a few others crept quietly over to get a better look, and Morgan could see her rooting silently. He caught himself before he laughed out loud. The drool was almost to the end of Vince’s chin, and he could see Paula and a few of the others glancing at the clock. Thirty more seconds and it was over for Paula. He found himself rooting right along with the others, swept up in the excitement of the moment.

With ten seconds to spare, the blob of drool broke free and landed with a plop on Vince’s chest. Paula let out a whoop that started Vince from his sleep.

“What the hell?” He glanced around at the people who were moving off, grumbling, and at Morgan still holding the little tray of pasta.

“Spaghetti?” Morgan asked nonchalantly.

Vince glared at him suspiciously, then shrugged and said, “Sure.” He snatched the tray from Morgan and went in search of a fork.

“Thanks,” Paula called from her desk.

“I owe you a frozen pasta thingee,” Morgan said.

“Nonsense, I owe you a lunch!”

“Careful, I might take you up on it. And I’m not exactly a cheap date,” Morgan patted his stomach ruefully.

“You’re still gorgeous and you know it,” Vince said from behind him, and Paula laughed. “Now, stop flirting and let’s get to work.”

Morgan flushed and smiled faintly at Paula, who grinned at both of them. Then he followed Vince to his office and they both sat down. Vince cleared a space on the desk for his pasta and coffee, and pulled out a notebook at two stacks of copies from under his arm.

Quickly he recounted the story of last night and this morning. Morgan listened without interrupting, nodding occasionally.

“I heard the call go out this morning. I wondered what was up. Do you think any of the other evidence was compromised?” Morgan looked more serious than Vince had ever seen him.

Vince took a deep breath. “We’ll know if any evidence has been outright switched, but as far as little changes… I can’t see there’s any way we would know. On the up side, we had very little evidence to tamper with. My guess is that Hank didn’t even know where to begin tampering, since the bulk of our evidence consisted of hundreds of boxed books. The fiber and fingerprint guys all processed everything immediately, and it’s in the computer, printed, and passed on to dozens of desks. There’s not a lot he could do there, and it’s not as if we really found anything, anyway,” he said bitterly.

“True. It’s not as if we have the murder weapon and he could screw up DNA evidence.”

“Right, but why didn’t he stick around?” Vince frowned.

“Because he had just switched out evidence and didn’t want to go to jail!” Morgan looked at him as if he was crazy. “Duh!”

Vince rolled his eyes. “But he didn’t know we’d know. He was meticulous – copied everything down perfectly. I told him I didn’t notice anything last night, so why would he think I’d notice something today? Especially since I was having someone else look at it. What were the chances I’d leaf through the books page by page again?”

Morgan nodded thoughtfully. “You’re right. Even if we didn’t know about the switch, him not showing up and not calling in today looks mighty suspicious. So why wouldn’t he?”

“If he was intent upon screwing up the evidence in this case, you’d think he’d want to stick around until we found something concrete. Like a murder weapon. Then he could snatch it and run, and we’d never be able to prove who killed St. James.”

“Unless,” Morgan said slowly, “his interest wasn’t in concealing the murder. We already know there’s an awful lot going on in the background of this case. The ‘why’ of this murder is not very clear cut. We know there was some illegal activity going on, but how many parties were involved? You have the people St. James was working for, but you also have people working against those people.” Morgan shook his head. “I’m not explaining this very well.”

“No, I understand. It’s like Mob families. When a member is killed, you never know if it’s his own family that did it because he stepped out of line, or a rival family that did it for whatever reason.”

“Exactly! So was St. James killed by his people, or the competition?”

“And which side was Hank working for?”

They both sat in silence for a moment, contemplated the myriad possibilities. Finally, Vince shook his head and sighed. “I don’t think that’s an answer we’re going to have anytime soon. We might as well concentrate on the evidence we have.” He picked up the notebook and handed it to Morgan. “I want you to keep that in a safe place for me. Not here, or at your house, but with someone you trust.”

Morgan took the notebook. “Why? Hank doesn’t know you have this information.”

“Yeah, but details have a way of leaking out. And as this is the only real lead we have, I’d like to keep it safe.”

“What about those?” Morgan gestured to the photocopies.

“One for me and one for you,” Vince said, handing a copy to him. “I figure a few more pairs of eyes looking at it won’t hurt.”

“As if we could find anything that Chris couldn’t. That man is a whiz with codes.”

“You never know. And, like I said, it doesn’t hurt. What else do we have to go on?”

Morgan grimaced and nodded. “You’re right. If it’s all we’ve got, we should put all of our effort into it.”

The phone on his desk rang and he snatched up the receiver. “Morgan. Yeah, I… You’re shitting me. When? Where? We’ll be there in ten – make that fifteen minutes. Don’t touch a thing.”

He hung up the phone and stared at Vince for a minute.

“What?” Vince asked.

“Well, they found Hank.”

“He’s dead, isn’t he?” Vince groaned.

“As a doornail.”

“You know that’s the stupidest expression even, don’t you?”

“Dude. It’s a classic.” Morgan grinned as he stood up.

Vince rolled his eyes. “I’ll get my team together. Where?”

“63rd Street – the old park, north side.”

“Okay, meet you there,” Vince said as he picked up his photocopied notes and left the office, already dialing his cell phone.

Morgan grabbed the original notebook and his copy off of his desk before following him.

They made their way quickly to the park where an unlucky jogger had stumbled – literally – onto Hank’s body. It was lying just off a main jogging trail, and a half-hearted attempt had been made to cover the body with debris. But either the people who dumped the body had been interrupted before they could complete the job, or they had wanted his body to be found quickly.

Vince crouched down next to Clarke. “What’s up?”

She sighed. “Well, thanks to you, not my love life.”

“Are you saying I interrupted something last night? Why didn’t you say so then? I would’ve left!” He grinned at her.

She stared pointed at him. “You knew. And you were glad.”

“Sweetheart, when you can look me in the eye and say ‘back off’ I will. But not a moment before that. Until then, I’m your guardian angel.”

“Guardian thug is more like it,” she snorted, but then let the matter drop abruptly. “Looks like the victim was shot once, point-blank, in the head. Not here, though. This is just a dump site.”

Vince nodded, and stood up. “Need anything?”

“No, I think we have it covered.”

“Let me know if you need anything.”

“Wait – maybe one thing. I… have a date tomorrow, and… no, never mind.”

“No, what?” he asked.

She sighed. “I just thought you might be able to get some intel on the… expectations.”

“Are we talking some generic guy, or…?”

“Morgan.”

“Oh,” was all he said for a moment, and he stared at her until she began to squirm slightly. Then he took pity on her. “I’m sure he doesn’t expect anything. And if he does now, I’ll make sure he doesn’t by tomorrow, okay?”

She smiled weakly at him, and ducked her head back to her work. He watched her for a moment before walking over to where Morgan was talking to some uniforms. He stood off to one side until Morgan glanced up and motioned him into the conversation.

“No witnesses,” Morgan said grimly.

“Yeah, and this is just the dump site,” Vince said.

Morgan shook his head. “There’s not much to be learned here. We should concentrate our efforts on the notebook.” He started to walk back to the car.

“Aren’t you even going to say hi to Clarke?” Vince asked, jerking his head towards her.

Morgan stopped and stared at him. “Sure,” he said slowly, “though I go the impression you wanted me to back off.”

“And you were going to?” Vince looked incredulous.

“Of course not,” Morgan scoffed. “I was just going to harass her behind your back.”

Vince laughed and clapped him on the back. Then he sobered and said softly, “Just so you don’t expect too much too fast. She’s been through a lot recently, and I’m not sure she’s ready for much of anything just yet. But be patient, I think she really does like you.” Vince winked.

“I heard rumors that something happened on the Scarborough case, the one where you killed the perp. She was involved somehow, but I never heard the whole story,” Morgan frowned. “I don’t guess you’d care to enlighten me? Unlike other travesties in the police department, that one was pretty effectively hushed up.”

“It’s not my story to tell. And only four people know the real story, so it’s wasn’t hard to keep under the rug. It’s when too many people know that things get out.”

“So keep my card close to my chest, is that what you’re saying?”

“Except with me,” Vince grinned. “I expect to hear everything.”

“Why, you know I never kiss and tell,” Morgan said sternly. “Now, get in the car. Let’s see if Wonder-Chris has anything for us.”

*****

“Sorry, I haven’t make heads or tales of it yet, sir. Of course, I’m only through the notes in Sense and Sensibility thus far,” Chris said contritely, sipping on a cup of Half-Fat No-Sugar Mocha Cream Cappuccino. “There does seem to be something there, but I just can’t put my finger on it. It seems so… familiar, and yet not. I really think I can get it, though, if I have enough time.”

“We don’t know how much time we have,” Morgan said grimly. “We don’t know if there’s going to be another crime, or even, if there is, what sort of crime we’re looking for.”

“I heard it was drug and art,” Chris said.

“Maybe,” Vince said,” but we really don’t know. That’s all speculation at this point. We don’t know anything for sure.”

“And therefore, we are not ruling anything out,” Morgan said pointedly.

“Of course not!” Chris said indignantly and took another sip of coffee. “Us techie boys never start with pre-conceived notions. Ruins the whole evidence collection process if we’re looking for something, instead of looking for anything.”

“So what can you tell me?” Vince asked.

“Well, there are distinct phrases I can pick out, along with some numbers. It looks like there are six in total – and if I could decipher them, it’d probably tell us the whole story. But… while they look like they should mean something, I draw a blank when it comes to what it means.”

“Lemme see,” Morgan said, taking the list from his hand. He stared at it, brow furrowed for a moment, before shaking his head and handing it back. “Not a clue.” He handed the sheet to Vince.

“I got nothing,” Vince said after a moment. He went over to the copy machine and ran some copies, handing the original back to Chris and a few copies to Morgan. The last copy he folded and put in his pocket.

“Well, boys, what do we do now?” Morgan asked with mock joviality.

“I’m going to get another coffee,” Chris said, slugging down the last of his and tossing the cup in the trash. “Then I figured I’d work on Hank’s case – still a lot of raw evidence to sort through. Then,” he sighed heavily, “back to the books.”

Vince nodded. “I’m going to talk to Clarke about Hank’s murder. Maybe there’s a clue to be found in the autopsy.”

“I guess that leaves me going back to the office. Oh, joy,” Morgan said. “More paperwork and phone calls.”

“It’s what you live for,” Vince grinned.

“You betcha,” Morgan said, and they all went their separate ways.

*****

Morgan got back to the office and went straight to Paula’s desk. She was squinting at the computer, painstakingly typing in a report.

“When are you going to move up to detective? Didn’t you pass the test?” Morgan perched on the edge of her desk.

She sighed, and rubbed her eyes. “Barely. They said they put me on a ‘list’ and I have to wait for one of two things: an opening, or I have to solve a case to prove I’m worthy.”

“How can you solve a case if you’re not a detective?” Morgan frowned.

“Ah, sweet Catch-22. I can’t, that’s the point. Reilly is still ticked about that harassment charge, and he’s making my life miserable as possible. He has friends in high places.”

“Oh, the sweet politics of police work. Have you considered transferring?”

“And running away? No. Besides, I have the kids to think about. The next jurisdiction is too far to commute, so I’d be pulling them away from everything they know. And so soon after Jeff’s death… no, there will be a time to move, but this is not it.” She smiled sadly.

“If I could do anything…” Morgan trailed off. They both knew he had less influence right now than she did.

“Thanks. Is there something you need?”

“Yes, a favor of sorts.”

She cocked her head to the side and raised an eyebrow. “A favor?”

“Nothing lascivious, I promise.”

She pouted in mock disappointment. He laughed.

“I need you to keep something safe for me.” He glanced around the office, but it was lunchtime and the place was deserted. “It’s evidence, and someone has already tried to tamper with this case once. I wouldn’t want you to keep it here. And don’t tell anyone that I gave it to you.”

She nodded. “I can do that, I think. It’s not like a bloody knife or anything, is it?”

“No, just, this.” He pulled out the notebook and handed it to her. “It’s a list of clues gleaned from some books we found at a murder scene. The lab boys got this,” he pulled out a copy of Chris’s phrase list, “out of it, but we’re stuck. We’ve made copies, but in case we get anything solid out of this we’d be hose if anything happened to the original. We’ll already have a devil of a time explaining the original loss at a trial.”

“Okay, am I allowed to look at it?” She reached out and took the notebook, scanning the page of phrases.

“Of course. You’re looking to solve a case, this could be your big break!”

“Right. Little ole me is going to come up with something that the lab boys and your brilliant mind are missing? Fat chance.” She looked at the phrase sheet again. “Though these look so familiar…”

Her phone rang, and she gave him a wane smile. He grinned back, hopped up and ambled toward his office. Out of the corner of his eye he say her slide the notebook into a drawer, and then begin diligently taking down the caller’s information.

*****

Vince swung by the morgue, but Clarke wasn’t in. He spoke to one of the lab techs who said she’d be back in about an hour, something about a personal appointment. He slapped his forehead. Of course, it was Friday. He should have remembered. He left a message for her to meet him at the Corner Café and wandered off in search of lunch.

He was just finishing up his hamburger when she stormed in, eyes flashing. He signaled to the waitress, who nodded and brought a giant chocolate milkshake to the table. Clarke looked surprised, then smiled.

“How did you know?” she sighed.

“It’s Friday. I figured you could use it.”

“We all have our stress coping mechanisms, don’t we?”

“There are a lot worse ones than ice cream, Beck.”

“But there are better ones, too. Why couldn’t I be addicted to exercise?”

“Or therapy?” Vince smiled. She glared at him.

“Don’t even joke about that.”

“Seriously, how was it?”

“You want a verbatim reenactment? Or should I just summarize?”

Vince leaned back and folded his arms over his chest. “I’ve got time. I want all the juicy details. After all, someday I might need to torment a shrink, and this could be valuable advice.”

She sighed and rolled her eyes, but after taking another huge spoonful of milkshake she began her tale.

*****

It started out like any other visit. Uncomfortable silences and the unavoidable staring contest. He always wins the staring contest, because my contacts make my eyes so very dry. I’ve been thinking about switching to that new Acuvue brand, but, well… I digress.

He started talking about my feelings, and I started blabbering on about my hair. Two things that always seem to work with him – feminine problems and cosmetic issues. Every shrink has his breaking point, you just have to find which topics will goad him to it.

*****

“…I mean, with all the advances in science, mankind can’t create a chemical compound that will permanently dye hair red?”

Albert opened his mouth to speak, but Rebecca forestalled him with a raised hand.

“I know, I know, the boxes of dye say permanent, but have you ever used one?” She glanced up at his bald dome, and hastily answered her own question. “Of course not. So you probably don’t know that the red pigment continues to wash out, and with a week or two, *poof* - all gone. And you’re back to mousey brown.”

He again opened his mouth, but before he could get a word in edgewise Rebecca gathered her thoughts and carried on. “I mean, a few months ago my hair was this amazing dark purple color. Almost black, but with an iridescent purple shimmer. Like a Grackle’s head, only purple, not blue.”

“Well that is very interesting , but…” Albert cut in quickly, but she cut him off.

“And look at it now. All gone. I’m going to have to dye it again, but every time I do I have this fear that all of my hair is going to fall out.” She leaned towards him and dropped her voice, even though they were the only two people in the room. “I have a friend – a woman – who is going bald, and it’s so sad. Now there’s a woman who needs some support! How awful is it for a girl to lose her hair? I mean, it’s completely,” she flicked a glance at his head again, “acceptable for a man, of course. But a woman?”

She sighed, shook her head, and leaned back. There was silence for a moment.

“Yes, that’s awful for your friend, but we’re here to talk about you,” he said firmly, “and the…”

“And yet,” she cut in, “I still do it. Even though I’m afraid all my hair might fall out – I mean, you should see the clumps that come out after I dye it! - I still do it. I don’t know why. Maybe that’s something you could explore.”

“I’m sure I could,” he said testily, “but that’s not why we’re here. You know you’ve been sent here to talk through your feelings involving the ‘incident’ and in the eight months you’ve been seeing me, you haven’t said a single word about it. You waste both our time ever week rambling about nonsense. What does that tell you?” he asked pointedly.

“Okay, first off, you were the one who started off with ‘Tell me what’s on your mind.’ So I did. And it’s not nonsense. I’ve been mulling the dye thing over a bit. I mean, am I really best as a redhead? I’ve been blonde before, but I worry it makes me too washed out. And I haven’t been able to find a decent dark brown…”

“Rebecca!” he cut in sharply.

“And,” she continued acidly, “if it’s such a bloody waste of time you might consider telling my esteemed employers that I’m fine and further sessions are useless. Then I can stop being a waste of your time.”

“But how can I tell you’re fine if you won’t talk about it? It seems to me you’re avoiding the issue, and that’s bad.”

“I’m telling you I’m fine,” she ground out.

“Okay, how about this. We have ten minutes left. Tell me how you feel about it, honestly, and I’ll consider stopping the sessions.”

She studied him for a moment, considering his proposal.

“Okay,” she said slowly, “I feel fine about it.”

He opened his mouth and she held up her hand. “Let me finish.” She took a deep breath.

“Honestly, I don’t think about it. There’s no guilt, no sadness, no anger. I don’t feel… anything. It happened, case closed. I’m not haunted by it. I’m not even anything more than slightly annoyed by the sideways glances I get from some people. It hasn’t changed my daily routine. I don’t feel any different. So, I’m fine with it – it’s the other people that have the problem.”

Albert steepled his fingers and looked at her gravely. “No one can go through that without feeling something. Why are you repressing?”

She glared at him, and the room once again fell silent.

“Then again,” she said slowly, “maybe a more honey blonde would suit me, especially if I get a bit of a tan.” She rose from her seat and went to the door.

“See you next week,” he called out after her.

“Sure thing, asshole,” she muttered under her breath, and smiled to herself as she left the room.

*****

Vince stifled a snort as she finished the story. “So you told it like it was – again – and he still won’t believe you?”

“Well, who could believe that wouldn’t scar a person for life?”

“Well, to be honest, Beck, it has a little.”

“Oh, the trust issue. You know, that’s incredibly ironic. The only way it’s changed me is that I don’t trust easily, and you want me to talk about it with some stranger that – guess what – I don’t trust?! Oh, that’s a laugh.” She scrapped the bottom of her milkshake glass idly with her spoon.

“You’re getting better, though. I think you just needed time. After all, you accepted a date with Morgan,” he grinned.

“Accepted, hell. Like the man was going to give up.”

“As if you wanted him to.”

“You know, Vin,” she lowered her voice, her expression becoming serious. “It means a lot to me that you vouch for him. I’m not sure I’d do it if it wasn’t for that.”

“I do vouch for him, Beck,” he said just as seriously. “He’s a good guy. And you can trust me on that. I’ve seen him is some pretty sticky situations, and no matter what he stayed on the right side.”

She nodded, her eyes filling with tears. “Damn it,” she said in a half-sob, half-hick-up. “Look what you made me do. I never cry.” She sniffled.

“Of course not,” he said, handing her a tissue. He cleared his throat and said in a stuffy voice, “It is an integral part of the healing process. The tears, they cleanse the mind and then the body will follow, and harmony will be restored. Your Id and Ed will be at peace.”

She laughed. “There is no Ed!”

“Says you. When I was in college my roomie had a friend named Ed. He used to leave the weirdest answering machine messages. It’d be ten minutes of him going. ‘Yeah, guys, this is Ed, and I’m just calling, but you’re not there, but it’s just me, Ed, calling and leaving this message, ‘cause you’re not there, but you’ll get this message when you get back, because I called, and I’m leaving this message…’ and on and on in that slow monotone of his.”

“And that is pertinent to my psychological well-being, how, exactly?”

“It made you smile.”

“Point,” she sighed. “Now, shall we go back to the morgue? I assume you want to observe the autopsy.”

“Indeed I do.”

He paid the bill, and they set off for the morgue. When they got there, Morgan was waiting for them. Clarke immediately began to blush and stammer slightly.

“W-w-well, imagine seeing you here. Slow day at the office, needed some excitement?” she asked, unlocking her office door. She set her purse down and pulled on her lab coat.

“Excitement and morgue – two things you just wouldn’t think of going together,” Morgan said dryly.

“Well, you should,” Clarke said stubbornly. “This is where all the magic – that stuff that lets you put the bad guys behind bars – happens.”

“No, my dear, that’s the evidence lab,” Vince corrected her.

“Half of what you do analyze comes from us, so without us you’re nothing,’ she retorted.

“Only in a murder case, you know. We work all sorts of cases that don’t involve a dead body. And there are a lot more non-murder crimes than there are murder crimes. Therefore, the evidence lab trumps the morgue any day,” he shot back.

“Are you telling me…”

Morgan drifted to the back wall, their morgue versus crime lab argument fading and washing over him like white noise. He had taken out the piece of paper with the phrases on it and sat heavily in a nearby chair. He stared at it, willing the meaning to come to him in a flash. Suddenly, Vince was shaking him.

“Danny, old boy, wake up!”

Morgan slapped his hand irritably. “Don’t call me that.” He started to get up but found that every joint in his body protested. He yawned and looked around. “How long have I been out?”

“Give or take a few minutes, about five hours.”

“Five hours?! And neither of you thought to get me up?”

Clarke drifted over. “But you looked so cute, snoring away,” she said.

“I don’t snore,” he said crossly.

“Like a chainsaw,” Vince said cheerily.

“Bite me,” Morgan retorted. Then his phone rang. He looked quizzically at the number, then answered.

“This is Morgan. Yeah. Um-hmmm… No… you’re kidding me… No, no I believe you, it’s just… yeah,” he laughed. “Vince and Chris will get a… oh, okay, yes, I understand. Sure, I can be there in about half an hour. Have you had dinner? I could… that sounds great, thanks. See you.”

Morgan grinned up at them. “We may have had a break. I need to go verify a few things, then I’ll let you know. It’s about the notebook.” He jumped up and hobbled out of the room, cursing the uncomfortable chair as he went.

“Vince,” Clarke said softly, “that was a woman on the phone.”

“Um-hm,” he said, still staring at the door.

“Do you think…?”

“Are you jealous, little Beck?”

“I don’t have any right to be,” she said matter-of-fact. “I mean, it’s not like I have any sort of claim.”

“But you are,” he grinned.

“You act like that’s a good thing,” she said, slapping him on the arm.

“It is. Because that means you’re getting better.”

“I guess it does,” she said thoughtfully. “Still, it kind of sucks.”

“Life does, if you’re lucky…” Vince said with a wink.

“You are awful.”

“Milkshake?”

“Milkshake.”

*****

Vince swung open the door to his apartment and stepped through. He paused, hearing the clanking of dishes coming form the kitchen. Sniffing the air, he detected the faint aroma of fried chicken and… were those chocolate chip cookies? He closed the door softly behind him and crept soundlessly down the hallway. He peered around the doorframe into the kitchen and froze.

Standing at the counter, clad in a ratty pair of pajamas and his old ‘Kiss the Cook’ apron, was Alex. Her hair was damp and she was frowning as she measured some ingredients into a bowl. Devoid of any make-up, her face had a much softer look, and he could see the worry etched into her face. He cleared his throat, and she jumped.

“Oh! Hello, I didn’t hear you come in,” she said.

“Well, hello, I didn’t expect you to be waiting for me inside my apartment,” he said.

“I just had to be sure.”

“Sure of what? That I didn’t have the cops waiting for you?”

“Well, yes,” she said, and heaved a sigh. “Look, it’s not that I don’t trust you, it’s just that…”

“You don’t trust me,” he finished for her.

“Um, yes,” she said sheepishly.

“And after you had satisfied yourself that the house wasn’t bugged or a giant set-up you… what? Had the sudden urge to cook?” He looked around the small kitchen, where every surface was covered in dishes full of food. Most were various desserts, but a few were main dishes; there was fettuccini alfredo, fried chicken, a shrimp stir-fry, and a large Caesar salad.

She opened her mouth to speak, and then looked around the kitchen. Then she burst out laughing. “I like to cook when I’m nervous or stressed, but I guess I did go a little overboard. It’s your fault, though, for taking so long to get home,” she chided gently.

“Look, I had to work – someone has to pay for all of this,” he snapped back, waving a hand at the kitchen counters.

“I work too!” she cried, “and all I try to do is do something nice, keep this place clean, and all you do is criticize me. I bet you didn’t even notice that I vacuumed, too.”

Suddenly they both stopped and stared at one another. Vince shook his head slowly, a small smile creeping onto his face. “Maybe I missed something, but when exactly did we get married?”

She grinned back. “What, are you saying you don’t remember that, either?” she asked in a mock acidic tone. “Next you’re going to say you don’t remember little Timmy.”

“Now I know you’re lying, woman. I’d never name a kid of mine ‘Timmy’.” He reached out to a nearby place and snagged a cookie.

“You’ll ruin your appetite,” she said, walking over and smacking his hand.

He grabbed her arm and pulled her towards him. “I don’t think so,” he said softly as he bent down to kiss her. She briefly tried to push away, but then relaxed and let him kiss her. “There would be benefits to marriage, you know,” he said against her lips. “What do you say?”

She pushed back away from his and stared up at his face. “You’re so funny,” she said shakily.

He shrugged, and went back to munching on the cookie. “You’re a good cook, you’re hot, and you’re an excellent kisser. Of course, I think I’d want a spin in bed before I actually committed, but you seem to have all the attributes I’m looking for in a wife.”

“You… you… you have got to be mad,” she stuttered. “Stop screwing around.”

“No, I think we should start,” he said, winking at her.

“You’re an ass, you know that?” She turned her back and busied herself at the counter.

“Oh, but I’m a fine piece of ass, admit it.” He walked up behind her and wrapped his arms around her, kissing the side of her neck. She felt herself relaxing against him and fought against the pull. Elbowing him in the stomach she wriggled out of his grasp and turned to stare at him.

“Are you forgetting the ‘I’m a murdering, evil, conniving bitch’ part?” she asked coldly.

“Evil, conniving, and bitch I will agree to. Murdering? No, you’re not.”

“What?”

“Sure, you set it up to make it look that way. Well, sort of. I don’t think you were quite expecting it to go down that way, so you had to improvise a bit. And you didn’t want to be too obvious, because, well, that would be far too obvious, and we can’t have the bad guys too relaxed, now, can we? No, you had to have just enough suspicion cast upon you to give you credibility, but not so much that they thought you might be trying to take the blame. Because they know who really did it.” He paused and popped a piece of shrimp into his mouth, and closed his eyes as he chewed. “This is amazing. I mean, amazing. You’re not just a good cook, you’re a great cook.” He opened his eyes and looked at her. “I love you.”

Shaking, she untied the apron and dropped it on the floor. She turned and walked out of the kitchen and towards the bedroom, not looking back. Vince shrugged, and went to the cupboard and got out a plate. He loaded it down with food and went to the dining room to eat.

It took Morgan fifteen minutes to drive over to Paula’s house. She answered the door wearing a slightly damp pair of ratty sweatpants and an old t-shirt, her hair already falling out of the neat bun she wore at work. She wiped flour-covered hands on her thighs and gestured him inside.

“I’m sorry,” she said, her hands fluttering up and down her ensemble. “I got home and the dog had been digging, so he needed a bath, and I’m trying to make dinner, and…” she trailed off with a sigh.

As if he’d heard her talking about him, a big scruffy dog came bounding around the corner and woofed at Morgan. He stood there for a moment, eyeing him, as if he was trying to decide of Morgan was friend or foe. Then, with the air of a dog who thinks everyone is a friend and potential playmate, gave another ‘woof’ and launched himself at Morgan.

“Buster!” Paula yelled, which distracted Morgan just enough so that when the dog hit him, it toppled him backwards. He lay there on the floor, 80 pound of damp dog woofing and wiggling all around him. Paula pulled on Buster’s collar, but Morgan waved her away.

“It’s fine, really,” he said, pushing himself up slowly. He was getting to that age where you didn’t get up anywhere hear as fast as you got down.

“I’m sorry,” she said, but he could see she was biting her lip in an effort not to laugh. He’s so very excitable, especially the first, oh, five hours after we get home. He’ll settle down.”

Morgan got to his feet, Buster still dancing around him. “Why don’t you go get a ball?”

Buster ‘woofed’ and went tearing out of the room. He came back a second later with bright orange rubber ball, which he dropped at Morgan’s feet.

“Oh, no, not in the house,” Paula said sternly. “And you’re not going out until you’re dry. Go get your tug rope.”

Buster looked at her for a split second, then went tearing out of the room again. He came back with a tattered tug toy in him mouth and began to flip the free end of it towards Morgan. Paula walked over and began to reach for it, but Morgan waved her off.

“I’ll play with him,” he said.

“Are you sure?” she asked. “He gets pretty rowdy.”

“Oh, sure, it’s-” was all Morgan could get out. He had grabbed the free end of the rope and as he had done so, Buster began to shake his head violently from side to side while simultaneously jerking backwards. Morgan gritted his teeth and grabbed the rope with his other hand, hanging on with all his strength. Buster still managed to yank the rope free, but as soon as it was loose he’d resume flipping the free end at Morgan.

A timer went off in the kitchen. “I have to finish dinner,” Paula said. “Why don’t you boys go play in the living room?” She gestured to the doorway leading to the living room, and went into the kitchen. Morgan headed to the living room, dragging an exuberant Buster with him.

* * *


An hour later, seated at the dinning room table with Paula and her two kids, Morgan was in agony. His arms felt like they’d been ripped from their sockets, his forearms burned from the effort of grasping the rope, and his back was killing him. At his feet, Buster panted happily.

“I’d like to thank you for giving him such a good workout. Normally I’ll go out back and throw the ball for him a bazillion times at night, but he doesn’t usually get to tug much. I don’t have the strength or endurance that you do!”

“I think it was some twisted male ego pride thing. I just didn’t want to give up, even though I knew I couldn’t win! I’ll probably regret it even more tomorrow. I’m already regretting it now. And look at him – he’s ready to go at it again!”

“I have some ibuprofen if you need it,” Paula said helpfully.

“Thanks. I probably will. Where did you get that beast?”

“A friend found him abandoned in his neighborhood, and brought him to me. He’s exceptionally bright-”

“He knows all of his toys by name!” Jamie, Paula’s 10 year old son broke in. “And I’m working on teaching him agility. He’s fast!”

“Really?” Morgan said, nodding. “He certainly seems smart.”

“He’s the smartest dog I’ve ever known,” said Rachel, Paula’s 12 year old daughter. “I bet he could be a detective dog!”

“And somebody’s been reading too much Nancy Drew, though, I know, I know,” Paula held up a hand, “we have you to thank for this!”

“Right!” Morgan said suddenly. “The case. The breakthrough. I knew I was forgetting something.” He winked at Rachel. “But that’s not a half-bad idea about Buster. How old is he?”

“The vet thinks he’s about one,” Rachel said.

Morgan turned to Paula. “I have a buddy down in the K-9 training unit. I could have him look at Buster. Not to get your hopes up, but if he’s accepted, and he’s already your dog…”

Paula grinned. “That would be wonderful! But I’ll try not to get my hopes up.”

“So what’s this I hear about a junior detective figuring out a clue?” he asked Rachel.

“Well,” she said slowly, “Mom got home and dropped her stuff on the dining room table – even though she tells us not to – and I told her about Buster digging, so after Mrs. Summer left, oh, she’s the after school babysitter, Mom took Buster into the bathroom and gave him a bath. I went to sit at the dinning room table to finish my math homework, and the notebook was just sitting there. I know I shouldn’t have looked, but…” she grinned at Morgan and said slowly and carefully, “I’m a high-spirited irrepressible youth!”

“Indeed. Well, I think maybe – just maybe – we can forgive you this one indiscretion,” Morgan said with mock-sternness.

“Anyway, so there was this notebook, and it was blue, just like the ones Nancy Drew uses, so I started looking at it. I hoped it was a super-secret detective notebook full of clues, and it was! So I started looking at the first section – the one labeled ‘Sense and Sensibility.’ Only, at first I was disappointed because none of what I was reading made any sense. All those numbers just jumbled together. But then,” she paused to pull out a battered blue notebook of her own, and flipped to a page near the back, “I noticed there were some cryptic phrases repeated. There was ‘Doesn’t your dog deserve it?’, ‘For the price of a dime’, ‘Eric Stanley and the Spy Girlz’, ‘Odette trumps Von Rothbart and Odie’, ‘Magic Bill and Magic Penelope’, and ‘Gator Cannon.’” She smiled up at him triumphantly.

“Okay,” Morgan said slowly. “We noticed those, too, but…”
“I noticed right off that the Eric Stanley, Odette, and Magic Bill ones were Nancy Drew book plots.” She held up three slim volumes. “So Mom and I sat down and guessed that the numbers next to the phrases referred to pages numbers, paragraph numbers, and word numbers.”

“It’s an old trick, really – I’ll be amazed if it was that simple,” Paula said softly.

“I think it is,” Rachel said stubbornly. “I mean, all of those words turned out to be numbers! That’s too weird to be a…”

“Coincidence,” Paula finished for her.

“Right. So, if you take those numbers,” she slid the book over to Morgan, “and arrange them by book number, then page number, you come up with 413242210781!”

Morgan stared at the paper. “Okay,” he said again slowly, “but…”

“That’s what I said, until I looked at the first two clues,” Paula said.

“And then it all became crystal clear?” Morgan arched an eyebrow at her.

“Well, after a little internet searching, yes, it did.” Paula smiled at him. “Look at the first one. ‘Doesn’t your dog deserve it?’ That’s an old Alpo commercial. Alpo. Alps. Swiss Alps. And the second clue, ‘for the price of a dime.’” She paused and looked at him.

“For the price of a dime…” he frowned, then his face cleared. “I can always turn to you!”

“Right! So, putting all that together, we have Swiss, 8675309, and 413242210781. Or in other terms, CH 86-7530-9413-24221078-1.” She wrote it out as she said it.

“A Swiss Bank account number!” Morgan chuckled. “Hidden in ‘Sense and Sensibility. How punny. But what about the last clue?”

“Well, Jamie helped with that one,” Paula said, turning to her son. Jamie was almost hopping out of his chair with impatience.

“Well, Jamie? What do you have for me?” Morgan asked, silently amazed that the boy had sat still so long he’d almost forgotten he was there.

“A Gator Cannon – you know, a cannon made out of a gator?” Jamie looked at him expectantly.

“I don’t-”

“We fired our cannon till the barrel melted down, so we grabbed an alligator and we fought another round. We filled his head with cannonballs 'n' powdered his behind, and when we touched the powder off, the gator lost his mind!” Jamie sang in a strong, off-key voice.

“Jamie is a bit of a war historian,” Paula said quietly. “He knows every battle, folk tale, and song by heart.”

“I’ve heard that song before,” Morgan said, “but I fail to see-”

“It’s the PIN,” Jamie said.

“The PIN Number?” Morgan asked.

“No,” Rachel said, exasperated. “The PIN. The ‘n’ in pin already stands for ‘number’.”

Morgan shoot his head. “Okay, the PIN, then. How does a-”

“In 1814 we took a little trip, along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississip. We took a little bacon and we-” Jamie started, but Paula cut him off.

“Yes, thank you, Jamie.” She turned to Morgan. “1814. That could be the PIN. So that gives you a Swiss bank account number and a PIN.”

“So, what now – do we just try it?”

Paula flushed a deep red.

“You already have.”

“Everything is on-line and-”

“But all you did was check, right?”

She flushed an even deeper red, this time in anger. “Are you-”

“I’m nothing. I’m looking out for you. I’m already a little worried that they’ll be able to trace the log-in back to your computer.”
“No they won’t,” Jamie piped up.

“They have all sorts of sophisticated things that can do all sorts of… things, and they can trace anyone,” Morgan finished lamely.

Jamie gave him a pitying glance. “Right,” he snorted. “As if they can trace me. I mean, the FBI never managed-”

“JAMIE!” Paula cut him off. “That is enough.”

He sat back in his chair, arms folded, still looking smug. Morgan glanced at Paula with amazement. “These are some kids you have.”

“Well, yes,” she smiled. “But all parents think their children are the best and brightest, don’t they?”

“Uh, I guess,” Morgan mumbled, slightly uncomfortable.

“You two, off to do your homework,” Paula shooed the kids from the dining room. They grumbled and left.

“That was quite some work there,” Morgan said.

“Yes. It was tempting, looking at all that money in the bank account, you know. I won’t lie about that.” She looked around the clean but slightly shabby room. Abruptly, she stood up, and Morgan got up as well.

“Uh, can you have the kids take a look at the rest of the clues?” Morgan asked tentatively.

Paula grinned. “Sure, I’ll call you if they come up with anything.”

They walked to the front door. Morgan paused again. “One more thing – don’t say anything to anyone about what we’ve found out so far, okay?”

“Why?” Paula looked puzzled.

“Just… just because. Trust me, I’m not going to steal your glory. I just…” he sighed. “I’ll explain later, okay?”

“Okay,” she shrugged, and Morgan walked out to his car.

* * *


Clarke sat in her living room, staring at the cordless phone in her hand. She started to dial Morgan’s number, and stopped. She let the phone drop back into her lap. So what if he was somewhere with another woman? Their first date wasn’t even until tomorrow night! Why did she even care? Shaking, she picked up the phone again and started to dial, then stopped.

‘Stupid, stupid!’ she cursed herself. She tried to think of something important she could call him with, some news that would justify a call at 8 pm. But the autopsy hadn’t shown anything earth-shattering, certainly nothing that couldn’t wait until tomorrow. ‘I could just call to talk,’ she told herself. She let her mind drift over possible conversations…

“Hi, Morgan, I was just calling to say, well, hi!”
“Okay. Hi.”
“Yeah, I was just sitting here, and thinking…”
“Look, I’m in the middle of making out with a Victoria Secrets model, do you mind?”
“Oh. No, I’ll let you get back to that. Bye.”
“Um-hm, bye.”

‘Okay, so it probably wouldn’t go like that,’ she told herself. ‘But it probably would be much better. There would at least be awkward silences.’

She was staring at the phone so intently that it made her jump when it began to ring. She dropped the phone on the floor, scrabbled for it, and answered it breathlessly.

“Hello?”

“Clarke, are you okay?” Morgan’s voice, sounding worried and perplexed.

“I’m… fine,” she said, a warm glow spreading through her. Certainly he wouldn’t be calling her if he was on a date, now, would he?

“You sound… out of breath. I didn’t catch you at a bad time, did I?”

“No, I was just…” her mind raced. Sitting here trying to call you? Imagining you on a date with a woman 50 pounds lighter than I’ll ever be? Talking to myself? “…sitting around,” she finished lamely.

“Oh,” he sounded unconvinced, but rallied. “I was wondering if you wanted to go get some ice cream.”

She thought back to the milkshake she’d had earlier. Glancing down, she stared at the noticeable bulge at her midsection. She really needed to diet, especially if she was going to been seen naked. And she wanted to be seen naked, she suddenly realized.

“Thanks, but I’ve already had my limit on sugar for the day. How about…” she frowned. What else was there to do?

“How about a trip to the gym, then?” he asked.

She paused a moment, unsure how to take it.

“Not that you need it or anything,” he said hastily. “You look great, you know, and I wasn’t implying… I like to work off stress, and… not that you’re stressed… but I…” he trailed off and fell silent.

“Do you play racquetball?” she asked.

“Um, not well…”

“Perfect! Shall we meet at the gym in, say 20 minutes?”

“How about I pick you up?”

“No, really, that’s not necessary!”

“It’s not a problem, really.”

“Look,” she said, grabbing up her purse and keys, “it’s just around the corner from my house. I can walk and meet you there – and I’ll be perfectly safe, don’t worry – so I’ll see you in a bit, okay?”

“But I’m right…” he started, but she hung up the phone and opened her front door.

“Here,” he finished, standing on her front stoop. She started, and dropped her keys.

“Gravity’s working!” he said cheerfully, leaning down to pick them up.

“Good to know,” she said absently. “What were you…”

“The usual – I was in the neighborhood and decided to drop by.”

“But,” she frowned, “you live on the other side of town.”

“Right.” He didn’t elaborate.

“So, you were visiting someone?”

“Yup.”

“Oh,” she said, turning pink.

He winked at her. “Not like that. Not like this. It was business.”

“Not like this?” she parroted as she turned and locked the front door, hiding her face from him. She could only guess what a love-sick puppy she looked like. It was cliché and pathetic, but there you had it.

“Right,” he said again.

She shook her head to clear it, pasted a smile on her face, and turned back to him. “Right, then, let’s go so I can kick your ass.”

“Anytime,” he said, taking her arm, and together they set off for the gym.

* * *


Vince started to get worried when he’d finished his meal – and a second helping – and Alex still hadn’t come out of the bedroom. He frowned, got up and knocked softly on the door. He heard a faint, muffled, “Go away!”

“Alex, are you okay?”

“I’m fine!” He heard a sniffle.

“No, you’re not.” He tested the door handle. Locked. “Let me in.”

“No,” she said stubbornly.

He sighed, then grasped the handle firmly and giggled it to the left. The lock released, and he shoved the door open. She lay curled in the middle of his bed, staring balefully at him through tear-filled eyes.

“I said,” she ground out through gritted teeth, “go away. I. Am. Fine.”

“No you’re not,” he said, moving to the edge of the bed.

“Yes, I am.”

“Then why are you crying?”

She shot him a look of pure venom, tilted her chin up and said haughtily, “I’m not.”

“Right. Let me guess – you just have something in your eye?”

“Right.”

He moved forward and sat on the edge of the bed. He reached out to touch her cheek and she slapped his hand away. He grinned at her.

“Everyone needs a little release now and then, you know. It’s okay,” he said softly.

“Oh, so you break down and cry like a baby, is that what you’re telling me?” She said it with a heavy measure of scorn, but he could see it was directed at herself, not him.

“Well, no, that wouldn’t be manly,” he gave her a lopsided grin. “I have… other ways of dealing with it.”

“Oh? And what would those be?”

“Let me show you,” he said, reaching out and pulling her towards him.

* * *


“That was amazing,” Alex said dreamily. “I have never felt so relaxed.”

“I thought you’d enjoy it,” Vince said, smiling down at her. “It always makes me feel better. Of course,” he added ruefully, “the girl I usually go to can do it for more than an hour without cramping up.”

“Maybe I should go see her,” Alex giggled.

“Oh, so now I’m not good enough? Now you want better?” Vince said in mock outrage.

“You were perfect,” Alex said, leaning up to give him a kiss on the nose.

“Uh, thanks…” Vince turned red. He jumped up and went to the dresser. “I, uh, have her card here. She’s reasonable, only $150 for the full hour, which seems like a lot, but that includes all the oils and stuff.”

“I’ll have to try that hot stone massage you told me about. Not that your hands weren’t splendid, mind you.”

He grinned at her. ‘I haven’t had that much practice, so that’s high praise indeed.”

“How about you? Want me to give a go at massaging you?”

Vince shook his head. “Thanks, but some other time. We have work to do, young lady! Get your butt up.”

Alex stretched languidly on the bed. “Oh, shucks, and here I was hoping we’d have time for sex.”

Vince had stripped off his shirt and shoes and was in bed next to her before she could blink. “I’ll make time for that,” he said huskily, and kissed her.

“I wasn’t…” Alex gasped when he finally raised his head.

“Weren’t what? Serious? Too late. Besides, you’re already mostly naked. I can’t miss this opportunity.” As he spoke, he trailed little kisses along her neck. She groaned.

“No, we really can’t, can we?”

* * *


Author’s note: my one experience with racquetball involved me nailing my dad in the back of the head with the ball. So I’m pretty much winging it here, sorry if I get any of the terminology wrong!

Clarke and Morgan got the gym and parted ways at the locker room. She scrambled into her workout clothes, pulled her hair into an untidy pony-tail and grabbed her racquet. She was at the court in less than 10 minutes, but he had still beaten her there.

“What took you so long?” he prodded her.

“I wasn’t aware it was a race,” she said coolly.

He grinned at her, and opened the court door. She raised her chin and sailed past him, setting herself in serving position on the court. He followed, closed the door and tossed her a ball. He took up position in front and slightly to the side of her.

“Ready?” he asked, glancing back at her.

She chewed her lip for a moment. “I think the question is, are you? You’d better stay on your toes.”

“Because you’re going to whoop my ass, I know, I know,” he said, turning back to face the far wall of the court.

“No,” Clarke mumbled to herself as she raised the ball and racquet to serve, “because I’m that bad.” She tossed the ball into the air and wildly swung her racquet. The combination of her nerves and bad serving technique resulted in a ball that flew perfectly straight – into the back of Morgan’s head.

“Ow,” he said almost tonelessly. He turned to face her. “The wall,” he said expressionlessly, gesturing at it with his racquet, “is over there.”

“I’m so sorry,” she said, “I-”

“Just try again,” he said patiently.

This time she managed to hit the back wall, but it took a wild ricochet and Morgan ended up throwing himself to the ground to avoid being hit in the side of the head. He picked himself up slowly and dusted himself off. “My serve.”

They exchanged placed and he served flawlessly. She even returned a few volleys until she manages to slice her racquet at the ball in such a way that it bounced backwards and nailed Morgan on the top of the foot. He caught the ball in his free hand and raised his eyes to hers, but didn’t say anything. He walked back to the serving position, hardly limping at all. Another flawless serve, but this time her return shot managed to bounce off the ceiling and Morgan barely missed being hit on the top of the head. He again corralled the ball.

“I would have sworn they were exaggerating,” he said, tossing the ball to her. “You serve.”

“What?” she asked, baffled. She managed to serve the ball and they hit it back and forth a few times until she slammed it into the side wall and it recoiled with such speed and velocity Morgan wasn’t able to get his racquet up to cover his face in time. The hard rubber ball slammed into the side of his jaw. She saw his muscles tense momentarily, but other than that he gave no reaction. He picked up the ball and handed it to her. “What?’ she repeated.

“What? Oh, the stories of you in a racquetball court are legendary at the office. But I thought they had to be exaggerating. That kind of stuff just doesn’t happen outside of cartoons!”

“Oh, so I’m a joke, am I? Is that why you came here, to laugh at poor, stupid Beck?” Her eyes were filling with tears, and she could feel her self-control slipping. It’d been a hard week, and this was the last thing she needed.

“Oh, no, it’s not like that at all, love, it’s-”

“Because I’m trying, you know, and I don’t know what people expect of me. I’ve never been athletic, I’m not coordinated, but I try. I certainly don’t warrant being the laughingstock of the department!” She was flailing her arms now, a good deal of anger mixed in with her frustration. She gestured violently with the ball and it slipped out of her hand. She watched in silent horror as it made a beeline for Morgan’s crotch and smacked him solidly. He winced slightly, then smiled.

He reached down and knocked on his athletic cup. “Forwarded is forearmed!” he smiled at her.

She burst out laughing and crying at the same time, and he walked over and put his arms around her.

“Shhh,” he hushed her. “It’s okay. Everyone loves you, hon, it’s not mean teasing, really.”

“Oh, I know,” she hiccupped. “I’m just stressed out over this case, and you, and me, and the stupid shrink and that asshole Jacobs… and I worry about Vince and what he’s getting himself into…” she blew out a sigh and sniffled. “Sorry for being such a weenie. I’m not usually like this. I never cry!”

He smoothed back her hair, and held her tightly. “I don’t mind,” he said softly into the top of her head.

She smiled to herself and snuggled deeper into his arms. “What do you say we go back to my place and watch a movie? I promise not to decapitate you with the remote or put an eye out with the popcorn…”

He laughed and released her. “It’s a deal, if I get to pick the movie. Nothing too chick-flicky.”

She grimaced. “Definitely not. I own the entire Babylon 5 series on DVD, or maybe you prefer Stargate? I have Firefly and Farscape, too…”

“You’re a sci-ci fan?” he asked in surprise.

“Uh, yeah…” she winced and looked at him. “Is that a problem?”

“Nope, in fact, I think I can safely say I love you, now.” And he turned and walked out of the court, leaving her to scramble out, grinning, behind him.
‘He wasn’t serious, you dolt,’ Clarke told herself as she hurriedly changed clothes. But she couldn’t stop the smile that was spreading across her face as she thought of it. ‘Get a hold of yourself,’ she told herself sternly. ‘It’s too soon for that sort of thing! Don’t get swept away. Remember last time…’ At that, her smile faded and her heart sank. Yes, last time. But last time Vince had been dead set against it from the beginning. Vince, with his magical sixth sense – and perhaps a little underground knowledge – had known better, and tried to warn her. But Vince was all for Morgan, so maybe…

She was still rapidly cycling through these thoughts when she met Morgan outside the locker rooms and they started walking back to her apartment. They were silent most of the way, making meaningless idle chatter now and then. They got to her door and she paused.

“Do you want me to go?” Morgan asked. “I know it’s been a long week and all…”

“No, no, I promised you a movie, and even some popcorn,” she said in an overly chipper voice as she unlocked the door and gestured him in.

“Thank you,” he said softly.

“For what?”

He just smiled at her, and made a beeline for the kitchen. Before she had even set down her purse and keys she could hear him rummaging around in there.

“What are you doing?” she called out.

“Fixing us a snack,” he called back, and she heard another clatter of pans. There was a sudden crash and she winced.

“Everything’s fine!” he said, popping his head around the doorway. She started for the kitchen but he held up a hand and grinned wolfishly. “I don’t think you want to do that. Why don’t you head for the living room, get the DVD ready?”

She quirked an eyebrow at him, but he remained impassive. Sighing, she turned away and trudged to the living room, cringing with each bang she heard emanating from the kitchen. She studied her shelf of DVDs and selected the first season of Andromeda, setting the disks into place in the DVD player. She setting into the couch and waited. And waited. And waited.

Finally, he came trundling out of the kitchen carrying two giant bowls with him. He set one down in her lap, and plopped down on the couch next to her, placing his bowl in his lap and picking up the spoon.

“What are we watching?” he asked around a mouthful of ice cream.

She looked down into her bowl and was amazed to see ice cream, sliced fruit, chocolate chunks, nuts, and whipped topping. It was everything anyone could want in a sundae, even… she peered closely… two flavors of ice cream. Super-sized, even.

“You do realize,” she said slowly, “that these are mixing bowls? No one eats out of something this size.”

“Says who?”

“Well, it’s…” she trailed off.

“Look, there’s not much ice cream there, in reality, it’s offset with some sugar-free pudding. Don’t pull a face, it tastes great and you probably wouldn’t have noticed. The whipped topping doesn’t have much in the way of calories, and the fruit – which you’ll notice there is tons of – is good for you. The nuts provide essential good-for-you fats and dark chocolate, according to current research, has a lot of health benefits.”

“Did you just rationalize eating a ten-pound sundae in terms of health benefits?”

“Yup.”

“Sounds good to me,” she said, picking up her spoon and digging in.

* * *

Vince woke up the next morning with a body draped across his. His mind groggily tried to remember who as he struggled to wake up. He’d always had a hard time getting started in the morning – his brain simply refused to start working in any timely manner, and certainly not before at least one solid shot of caffeine. ‘Last night… oh, Alex… right… oh, GOD!’ his mind provided him with the memory and he quickly disentangled himself and got up.

She murmured and rolled over, her hair splayed out over the pillow and the sheet draped over her. She looked so peaceful. He hated to disturb her, but…

“Alex,” he murmured, shaking her shoulder gently. “Alex, wake up.”

She mumbled and swatted his hand away, sighing and turning over.

“Alex,” he said more firmly.

“What?” she said into the pillow.

“You need to get up.”

She raised her head slightly and stared balefully at him. “Why?”

“Uh…”

She buried her head back in the pillow. He turned and went into the bathroom to take a shower, his mind racing. What was he going to do now? What did this do to the investigation? What if – okay, when – Clarke and Morgan found out? By the time he had finished his shower his stomach was a mess of knots. He laughed dryly at his reflection in the foggy mirror. Cool as a cucumber Vince nervous over a girl! Admittedly, she was no ordinary girl, and this was no ordinary situation, but still. It would have been funny if it wasn’t so pathetic.

He left the bathroom and saw she was still splayed on the bed, snoring softy. He got dressed quickly and went to the kitchen to make coffee. As it was brewing, he called Morgan. There was no answer at his house. He frowned, and dialed his cell phone. This time he got a sleepy Morgan on the other end.

“Where are you?” Vince asked as soon as Morgan had grumbled a hello.

There was a pause, then a mumbled, “Couch.”

“You’re on your couch? Why didn’t you answer your phone, then?”

“No, not… what do you want?”

“What’s going on.”

“Nothing,” Morgan said stubbornly, and Vince heard him cover the phone with his hand, then a murmuring. He strained to hear what was said, but couldn’t make it out.

“Seriously, where are you?”

“What do you want?”

Vince remained silent for a moment, then an idea struck him. “Oh, I was just,” he said casually, grabbing his cell phone and flipping it open, “wondering what you were doing today.” He dialed Clarke’s number on his cell phone. “I though…” he heard the phone ring through his connection with Morgan the same time he heard it in his cell phone. He snapped the phone shut and the ringing stopped. “You’re at Clark’s, aren’t you?” he asked mildly.

“Uh, no, why would you-”

“Please,” Vince drew out the word like a petulant valley girl.

“Right, yes, so I am. On the couch. What do you want?” Morgan sounded like he was forcing the words out from between clenched teeth.

“I… well, I wanted to talk to you about the… case, and…” Suddenly, Alex walked into the room.

“What are you…” she trailed off when she saw the phone in his hand, and slapped her hand over her mouth. But it was too late.

“And who was that?” Morgan asked casually.

“You know.” It was Vince’s turn to clench his teeth. “It’s one of those things we all need to discuss. Do you two want to come over here, or should we go there?”

“Lemme check,” Morgan said, and covered the receiver again. A minute of mumbling and he came back on the line. “We’ll be over there in a few. Want me to pick up breakfast on the way?”

“Uh, that would be… lovely, thanks.”

“Right.”

“Okay.”

“See you in a bit.”

“Okay.”

“Um, bye.”

“Bye.”

* * *

Morgan and Clarke stopped by the bakery on their way over to Vince’s, sparking a quite vehement doughnut debate. The first point was the word itself. The second point was the preferred variety.

“Ugh. I can’t stand it when it’s spelled that way,” Clarke said testily, flicking her hand at the ‘DONUT’ sign. “I know it’s modernly accepted, but still.”

“What other way would you spell it?”

“Are you serious?”

“No, I just ask questions for no reason. Us police officers do that all the time, you know. Of course I am,” he replied testily.

“D-O-U-G-H-N-U-T, and there’s no need to get snippy. I think somebody needs another cup of coffee.”

“I am not being snippy,” he snipped. “But it’s not a nut made out of dough, so that doesn’t make sense, either.”

“It’s not a nut you do, either, so what sense does that make? Besides, maybe that’s derived from dough-knot, as in, a knot formed in the dough. That would make sense.”

“You’re pulling that out of your… out of thin air.”

“But it sounds good, doesn’t it?”

“Regardless,” he said, “if ‘doughnut’ is an acceptable derivation of ‘dough-knot,’ why can you not accept the further derivation to ‘donut’?”

She glared at him. “Because it’s wrong,” she hissed.

“Now that’s a compelling argument,” he grinned at her.

She narrowed her eyes at him and followed him into the shop, still seething silently. She brightened visibly as they reached the doughnut counter and she inhaled the scent of freshly baked pastries.

“What can I get you?” the shop employee asked.

“A dozen glazed, please,” Morgan replied.

“Just glazed?” Clarke asked.

“Yeah, it’s the only decent donut,” he replied.

“Are you out of your ever-loving MIND?” she cried. “What about cake doughnuts and glazed cake doughnuts and frosted cake doughnuts with sprinkles? What about apple fritters and fruit-filled or jelly-filled and cinnamon rolls? What about long johns and Boston cream and Bavarian cream? What about…” she glanced at the doughnut case, “doughnut holes?”

“Well, technically, donut holes are glazed donuts…” the clerk started, but broke off when she glared at him.

“We will have two dozen, all assorted, please,” she replied haughtily.

“Yes, ma’am,” the clerk replied quickly, hurrying to fill the doughnut boxes.

Morgan grinned at her. “Two dozen? There are only four of us!”

“Yes, so that’s six a piece. And your point is…?”

“Um, nothing,” Morgan said, wisely keeping further opinions to himself.

“Besides,” she said grumpily, “we’ll be lucky to get two each. Have you ever seen Vince eat doughnuts?”

Morgan thought about it for a minute. “You know, I don’t think so. I’ve had breakfast with him, but only someplace where we had eggs and pancakes and… Uh, now that I think about it, I have seen him pack away a giant omelet, two stacks of pancakes, a pound of bacon and a plate of hash browns. You may have a point.”

“Of course I do. And he hates glazed doughnuts.”

Morgan peered at her, again wondering about her relationship with Vince. But he couldn’t bring himself to pry, and even if he wanted to, this wasn’t the place. He paid for the doughnuts and they climbed back into the truck and headed for Vince’s.

* * *

“Oh, thank god you’re finally here!” Vince cried melodramatically as he flung open the door. He snatched the doughnut boxes from Morgan’s hand and grabbed a doughnut, stuffing it into his face as he led them into the living room. “Thew’s cwoffwee en ah kithen,” he said in a spew of doughnut crumbs.

Morgan and Clarke went to fix themselves a cup of coffee, and by the time they got back to the living room, Vince was on his third doughnut, and almost ready for his fourth. Morgan grabbed the one glazed doughnut of the bunch while Clarke selected an apple fritter. They both looked warily at Alex, who sat nervously nibbling on a cake doughnut.

“Hi,” Alex said softly.

“Um, hello,” Clarke said slowly. She tilted her head to one side and studied Alex carefully.

“Okay, everyone knows everybody, right?” Vince asked cheerfully. They all nodded dutifully. “I first want to assure you that Alex did not kill St. Irving. In fact, she is on our side.”

“Oh?” Morgan asked, raising an eyebrow. He studied the other doughnuts in the box and with a frown selected a filled long john.

Alex eyed Vince warily, and Clarke sat, picking at her apple fritter, her eyes moving from one to the other.

“Yes. In fact, though she will not admit it, Alex works for the FBI,” Vince said.

“I do not!” Alex exclaimed.

“Yes, you do,” Vince said patiently. “I know all about you, your missions, your training… even that incident with the salt water taffy…”

“That was CLASSIFIED!” Alex fumed, then slapped her hand over her mouth when she realized what she had done. She turned bright red.

“So we all need to work together and figure this thing out,” Vince continued calmly. Clarke and Morgan just stared at him, slightly dazed.

“How long have you known this?” Morgan asked.

“How did you know this?” Alex asked.

Morgan turned to her. “He knows everything and everybody, and I’m not sure any of us want to know exactly how. Let’s just say his family is… colorful. And long-reaching.”

“To answer your questions, I only knew for certain since last night, but I suspected for awhile. As to how, that was simpler than usual. I ran your fingerprints,” Vince said with a smug smile, picking up his fifth doughnut and leaning back.

“I was so careful! I wiped everything!” Alex said.

“Not the headboard,” Vince said, and winked at her.

She turned even redder, and set the mangled remains of her doughnut down on the napkin in her lap. “Well,” was all she said, and that came out in a small, strangled voice.

“Yes, well, now we all know the truth, we can all work together, right?” Clarke said cheerily, a tight smile on her face. “Why don’t you tell us your story? What all do you know, and what were you doing that day?”

Alex looked around the room, took a deep breath, and began her tale.
“I don’t know how much you already know…” Alex began.

“Assume we know absolutely nothing,” Vince said, “and don’t skimp on the details!”

“Okay, well, there’s not that much to tell. Yes, I work for the FBI. I’ve been on this case for the better part of three years. I started out by trying to break into the art scene and get a foothold there.” She sighed and took a sip of coffee.

“The art scene?” Clarke asked.

“Yeah, the whole thing revolves around art. The funny thing is, even though the art part is a complete sham, you still have to be a somewhat talented artist to get in.”

“So you didn’t cut the mustard, eh?” Morgan asked.

“No, not in the least. Strangely, not because I’m not a fair hand with a brush, though. They were looking for ‘edgy’ artists – not people who can re-create the real world on canvas. I can paint a mean landscape, but I don’t have the extra-special weirdness they were looking for. Though I tried.” Alex smiled bitterly. “I, for instance, never thought to put screaming children in my perfectly nice meadow.”

“Ah, yes, I remember that piece,” Morgan said.

“Yeah, well, that was my meadow, the one I painted to try to impress them, and they had someone paint the children in to add the ‘edge’. They figured it would make a good ‘show’ piece. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, though, what do you know about Hurphlump?” Alex asked.

“That sounds familiar…” Clarke wrinkled her nose in concentration. “Is that the new psychotropic drug that’s all the rage?”

“That’s the one. I don’t know much about it other than, for some reason, you have to import the important components and they’re really easy to detect by a dog, so they’ve had to be creative.” Alex said.

“Yes,” Clarke said, “that’s the one I’m thinking of. I can help you out with those details. See, the main chemical compound, TRDF, is not, as far as we know, able to be synthesized. No lab has ever managed. But the Troggu Frog of South America does it naturally. The problem is, the frogs are very fragile and don’t survive in captivity, though they flourish in the rainforest. So to manufacture the drug you have to get the compound from where it’s harvested – South America – to the US. Problem is, the DEA knows all about it, and it turns out the compound has a very pungent odor. Even humans can smell it, and the dogs can sniff it out from a mile away. I heard it smells like… turpentine. Oh, my god! No wonder…” Clarke trailed off in amazement.

“Okay, I’m still lost,” Morgan said. “You might have to spell it out for me. Also, why can’t they just manufacture the drug in South America and ship up the finished product?”

“That doesn’t help – the odor’s in the finished product, too. Plus, it’s a highly volatile concoction, so people tend to prefer to manufacture it in the more controlled labs available in the US,” Alex said.

“Pardon me for being dumb, but I don’t see the art connection, either,” Vince said with a frown. He picked up another doughnut and nibbled at it restlessly.

“Is that your eighth doughnut?” Clarke asked in surprise.

“Yeah, and?” Vince arched an eyebrow at her.

“Nothing, nothing. I wish I could get away with that, though,” Clarke grumbled.

“What can I say? I was blessed with good looks, supreme wit, incredible intelligence and a super metabolism.” Vince grinned at them.

“And, oh, so much humility, eh?” Clarke rolled her eyes.

“Back to the topic at hand…” Morgan said.

“Yeah, I get the general idea, but how do they do it?” Clarke asked.

“You were dead on when you said it smells like turpentine. The dogs even have a hard time distinguishing them, which is why it works. I haven’t seen it firsthand, but this is what I gather happens: The skin secretions containing the chemical are harvested from the frog. Then a canvas is impregnated with the secretions. They then use some sort of plastic polymer to ‘seal’ over the canvas. Finally, an artist paints a ‘work of art’ on the canvas and it is shipped to the US. The painting and polymer are removed, the canvas is soaked in a solution that removes the… what did you say it was?” Alex asked Clarke.

“TRDF,” Clarke said.

“Right, that. Then they manufacture the drug. I’m sure there’s lots of technical information I’m leaving out, but that’s the basics. And there’s so much art traffic that it’s hard to tell which are ‘real’ and which are destined for the drug trade. Even when we’ve been able to find out an artist is working for them, not all of his works are sent with the compound. That’s why they needed ‘real’ artists – for cover,” Alex said with a sigh, and leaned back in her chair. “That’s why I ended up trying to break into the administrative side. I figured if I could get my hands on the codes that said which paintings were which, we could make a bust. But it hasn’t helped.”

“Yet,” Vince grinned.

“What?” Alex asked.

“It hasn’t helped yet. But now you have us!” he replied.

“Right,” she said, but she didn’t sound convinced.

“Hey, we’ve helped!” Morgan said.

“How, exactly, have you helped? Other than blowing my cover?” Alex asked testily.

“Well there was the whole code thing…” Morgan trailed off lamely.

“So you found the code. Whooptie-do. I knew there was a code, but until we know what it means, we haven’t gotten anywhere,” Alex said. “Forgive me if I sound a little cranky, but it’s been a rough week.” She slumped in her seat, her head lolling to the side and her eyes closing. “I just want this to be over. I want the last three years of my life back.”

“I know how you feel,” Clarke said sympathetically.

“Do you now?” Alex asked skeptically, opening one eye. “Really?”

Clarke cast an uncomfortable look at Vince. He half-smiled and shrugged at her. “Now’s as good a time as any, babe. We’re all airing our secrets, here. Except for Morgan. I don’t think he has any.”

Morgan grimaced and shifted in his chair. Vince looked at him in surprise.

“Or maybe he does…” Vince said.

“We all have our secrets,” Morgan said. “Is this turning into an ‘I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours’ session?”

“Sure, why not?” Vince asked. “Though I’m sure Alex has tons more to tell us,” he looked pointedly at her, “we’ll give he a break for a moment. I’ll tell you one of mine. I didn’t kill Doug Jeffries.”

“What?” Morgan frowned at him. “That’s what you testified to, it’s what the police reports said, it’s…”

“Well, I didn’t. He was dead when I got there. Not that I wouldn’t have killed him, but I didn’t.” Vince said, looking pointedly at Clarke.

Morgan looked at Vince, then at Clarke. “You were the girlfriend,” he said slowly. “The one that was there, unnamed in the reports. How did you manage to sush that up?”

“It was hard work,” Clarke said softly. “But it had to be done. If it’d come out it would have destroyed the entire case. And you know Jeffries and his friends were guilty. But they’d claim I wasn’t impartial, that I had rigged the case against them… and more innocent kids would have died. I couldn’t let that happen. I was impartial. I didn’t even know there was a connection until that last night…”

“I know they were guilty,” Morgan said grimly. “But you’re right. We never would have gotten the conviction without your evidence – your testimony. Oh my god, how did you manage that? The emotional strain…”

“I’m a pretty tough broad,” Clarke smiled sadly. “But it wasn’t easy. And watching Vince take the blame…”

“Credit, I think you mean,” Vince grinned at her. “Hell, after that all came out I was a hero!”

“Still, there’s that stigma attached to someone who’s killed. Not that everybody minds, but some people have a problem with it,” she said.

“I don’t think we have to worry about that here,” Alex said. “Quick show of hands. Who here has not killed someone?” No one raised their hand. “That’s what I thought.”

“And, see, this is the woman I’m going to spend the rest of my life with. If she doesn’t mind, it’s all good,” Vince grinned wolfishly at Alex and poked her in the side. She scowled at him and batted his hand away.

“You say that about every waitress you meet,” Morgan said.

“But this time I mean it!” Vince said cheerily.

“I don’t think you’re the only one with a say in that,” Clarke said, watching Alex glare at Vince.

“Oh, I’d gladly spend the rest of my life with him – if we were on a deserted island in the middle of the ocean, living a life a leisure,” she said.

“I’m going to hold you to that!” Vince said, getting up and dropping a kiss on her forehead. “Be right back.”

Vince strode off down the hallway and Alex closed her eyes again. Morgan looked at Clarke.

“So the mysterious bond is revealed. You guys are partners in crime,” Morgan said. “Or, rather, justice. Were you worried I’d think differently of you if I knew?”

“Yes,” Clarke said.

“Why? You did humanity a service. I could only think more highly of you.”

“Not about killing him. I’m proud of killing him. If I could tell everyone that, I would. But…”

“But what?”

“But to admit that I killed him, I’d have to say why I was there. I’d have to explain… how stupid I was, and what happened…”

“What, because you fell for him? Sweetheart, I met the guy. He was as charming as they come. I don’t blame you. He had tons of women falling at his feet. The important thing is, you did see through it. You never did let your personal feelings get in the way of the case, did you?”

“No,” she said softly. “I never did. Though once I knew I couldn’t keep it hidden. He knew I knew, and that’s why… that’s what started it that night. He’d been nothing but the perfect guy up until then. Sweet and charming, loving, attentive. But he must have seen something in me that night.”

“What, exactly, happened?”

“Well, I’d had my suspicions, but at that point I was letting my personal feelings get the better of me. I didn’t believe it – I have sent out for one final test. It was a long shot, a possible DNA sample, but if it was conclusive I’d know my suspicions were founded. Looking back on it now, I know he only started dating me so he could pump me for information, see how close the police really were. I’d like to say I didn’t let too much slip, but…” she shrugged. “Maybe I did. Anyway, the lab must’ve been working overtime that night because they called me while I was at his house. They only said two words – ‘It’s a match’ – and I hung up. I called Vince and asked him to get over there as fast as he could. But Doug came back into the room, and it must have shown on my face… he was so very calm. Unnaturally so. And I knew – I knew – he was going to kill me. He picked up a lamp and pulled off the cord, walking towards me with this… this smile on his face. I reached behind me and there was that ugly gazelle head statue. I grabbed it, and when he was close enough…”

“You stabbed him with the horns,” Morgan finished for her.

“It wasn’t nearly as bloody as I thought it would be,” Clarke said softly.

“And then Vince got there…” Morgan prompted.

“And I saved the day!” Vince said, coming back into the room. “Ah, that feels better. Too much coffee.”

“Too much information,” Alex mumbled.

“Anyway, Beck and I staged it so it looked like there was a great ruckus, I told her to high-tail it out of there and make an anonymous call from a pay phone, made up the story about the girlfriend flagging me down in the street, me going up to the house, the fight, etc,” Vince said. He picked up his coffee cup. “Anyone else need more?”

“Sure,” Alex said.

“Yeah, me too,” Morgan chimed in.

“I’ll bring the pot back,” Vince said, and went into the kitchen. They heard a mumbled curse, running water and grinding beans. “It’s going to be a moment,” he said, poking his head back into the room. “Somebody took the last of the coffee and didn’t make more.”

“So you were the elusive girlfriend they never identified,” Morgan said again.

“Yup. And even though the description Vince gave sounded a lot like me, they all knew he knew me, and it wasn’t like he wouldn’t have recognized me, so… Even still, there were people with suspicions.”

“Suspicions are nothing without proof.”

“And that’s why they sent me to the shrink.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, see, ostensibly it’s because there were a lot of rumors about it, and I had a bit of a tantrum, but I have my own suspicions.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I know there’s this doctor-patient confidentiality thing. But somehow I don’t trust it. I think that if I ever told him it would somehow get out, you know? He keeps trying to get me to talk about ‘the incident’ – meaning my meltdown in the office – but I know he’s alluding to the real incident – that night at the house. He keeps talking about how I should feel and react to being an outcast and being ‘talked about’, but it seems like his questions are more pointed than they should be if he was just talking about the whole office politics and me getting pissy and throwing a potted plant. So I dance around the issue and try to avoid it. The bugger of it is that I have to keep going until he says I can stop, and that doesn’t seem likely.”

“No, it doesn’t. I’m guessing that prick Jacobs has his hand in this?”

“Oh, yes, very astute of you. I’ve always wondered why he took such an interest, honestly,” she looked at him thoughtfully. “You don’t think…”

“Eh, anything’s possible, but it’s more likely he’s just a jerk.”

“Are you talking about Jacobs?” Vince asked, coming back into the living room carrying the coffee carafe. He poured everyone a fresh cup and set the mostly empty carafe on a coaster on the table.

“Yeah,” Morgan replied, taking a sip of coffee. He grimaced, “Good god, how much coffee did you put in the basket?”

Clarke took a sip of hers, and her face immediately pinched into an expression of shock and horror. “Oh my god it’s like drinking gasoline!”

“Fuel for the body,” Vince said, contentedly sipping the bitter brew. Alex eyed her coffee cup warily. She got up and went into the kitchen, appearing a moment later with a carton of milk.

“Cream?” she asked. When both Morgan and Clarke nodded vigorously she poured a heavy dollop of milk into each of their cups. Vince frowned at them.

“Weenies,” he said.

“I like my stomach lining the way it is, thank you very much. So, what do you know about Jacobs?” Morgan asked, sipping the tempered coffee.

“What makes you think I know anything?” Vince said mildly.

“You know something about everyone,” Clarke said.

“True. You never told me he was being a jerk, though,” Vince said reproachfully. He narrowed his eyes at Clarke. “I could have taken care of that.”

“That sounds ominous,” Alex said.

“Oh, nothing like that!” Vince chuckled. “Not that it’s beyond me, that, but it’s rather a drastic first step, don’t you think? I was thinking about sending him some copies of some photos I have of him in woman’s lingerie.”

Clarke choked on her coffee. “Jacobs?!”

“Yup. Now, mind you, I don’t judge – if a man wants to dress up in woman’s underclothes it’s his prerogative. But the voting public might have something to say about it, you know?” Vince smiled.

“How did you get photos like that?” Alex asked.

“The woman he was with – not his wife, I assure you – is my cousin’s girlfriend’s roommate. Information is the chief commodity traded in my family – I got the pictures in exchange for doing a little wiring in their apartment,” Vince said.

“Wiring?” Clarke and Alex asked simultaneously.

“Web cam business,” Vince replied.

“Oh,” they nodded in unison.

“So he’s overcompensating?” Alex asked.

“Uh, sure, if by that you mean he’s being a total ‘manly’ jerk to make up for the fact that he’s secretly dressing up as a woman,” Vince said.

“Interesting…” Clarke mused.

“So what’s your secret?” Vince said, pointing at Morgan.

“I… may have found out what part of the code means,” he said.

“Do tell!” Alex said, leaning forward.

“So far all I know is there’s a Swiss Bank Account with a whole lot of cash in it,” he said. “We haven’t figured out any of the other parts, if they deal with deliveries or anything like that.”

“We?” Vince asked. “Is this the Royal We, or do you have other partners?”

“Um, well…” Morgan trailed off. “Sort of.”

“Who else did you tell?” Vince asked.

“Well, remember when you asked me to put that notebook somewhere for safekeeping? The someone I chose had children, and the kids found it… and they deciphered part of it…” Morgan stared at the floor.

“Children?” Alex asked, her eyes wide. “Children cracked the code?”

“Well, yeah. It was all references to kid’s stuff.” Morgan said.

“That makes sense. Oh my god, why didn’t we think of that before?” Alex jumped up and began pacing. “We’ve long thought that Monty Ferrel was really the man behind this – he’s exceedingly wealthy, with most of his money coming from overseas ‘investments’, or so he says. But he has legitimate looking statements, and pays the taxes on the money, so they’ve never really been able to crack down on him. But we always thought he was involved. No proof, though, and while this isn’t proof in and of itself, it makes sense…”

“How does this make sense?” Clarke asked, perplexed.

“Monty Ferrel is not only wealthy, but exceedingly eccentric in the way only the filthy rich can be. It’s rumored that he had a bad childhood, so now he’s reliving that childhood. He surrounds himself with children’s toys, books, and games. It’s said he even sleeps in a giant crib. And there are… other rumors, but the point is that it’s the sort of code he’d be comfortable with. It’s something he would recognize,” Alex said. “Excuse me, I need to make a call!”

“Alex?” Morgan stopped her.

“Yes?” she asked, impatiently tapping her toe.

“Don’t… tell anyone about the account just yet, okay?” Morgan said.

“Why?” she asked.

“Insurance. You can tell them we think we’re onto something about the code, but… don’t say we’ve deciphered any of it. If they want copies of our notes, we can send them copies of the books we haven’t deciphered – it appears the bank information was self-contained in Sense and Sensibility.”

“Um, okay,” she said, shrugging. She went over to her purse and grabbed a cell phone. They listened while she recounted a scaled-down version of events to the person on the other end of the line, and promised to send over the notes as soon as she could.

“Well, I’m off the case,” she said. “They said my cover was definitely too compromised, and that I’ll be a desk jockey for awhile.” She grimaced.

“I’m sure my office phone is ringing right now to tell me I’m off the case,” Morgan said.

“Yeah, mine too,” Vince said.

“Ditto,” Clarke chimed in.

“Back to the grind, I guess,” Morgan said.

“So whose genius kids figured it out?” Vince asked.

“Paula,” Morgan said.

“Oh, yeah, the one whose husband…” Vince trailed off.

“Yeah, I’ve felt pretty bad about that for awhile. But how do you prove it was a cover-up?” Morgan said.

“You don’t, not even I could get enough evidence to really prove it,” Vince said grimly.

Morgan laughed bitterly. “We’ve all been screwed over by the ‘man’, haven’t we?”

They all nodded. “Though maybe none of us as badly as Paula,” Morgan added. “I think she knows, too, what really happened. That it wasn’t some random thud that shot him. She knows they ordered the hit because he wouldn’t play ball, and now she has to work with those people, day in and day out, just to support her kids. I know she’s been trying to get a transfer, and those bastards just won’t let her.”

“That’s awful,” Clarke said.

“Not much we can do about it, though,” Vince said.

Morgan grinned suddenly. “Says who?

* * *


“Have you heard from Paula or Vince lately?” Clarke asked from behind her newspaper.

“Paula’s happily living in Australia now, I heard from her about a week ago. They’re planning on taking a trip to Egypt soon, her daughter fancies a career in Egyptology at the moment. Vince and Alex are still on that cruise around Africa. I think they’re planning on stopping off in Australia after that. Why, fancy a trip?” Morgan asked.

“Ah, no, I’m happy here,” Clarke said. “you couldn’t have picked a better island!”

“I aim to please. I should have made you take the same vow Alex did, though.”

“True – though I guess Vince can argue that they do own an island, so even if they’re not living there the vow still holds.”

“True, true.”

“So did they ever wrap up that case?” Clarke asked.

Morgan glanced up from his, then gazed out across the deep blue ocean water. “Yeah, I think I read that they did – caught the main conspirators, rounded up the artists involved, destroyed the paintings, all the usual. There’s been a sharp decline in the amount of Hurphlump sold on the streets, though they haven’t stopped it completely. They won’t be able to use the same old tricks anymore, but they’ve found another way. But it’s not our problem!”

Clarke grinned and sipped her coffee. “Too bad they never found all of that money…”

 


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